Rosa Luxemburg
The Accumulation of Capital

Section Three
The Historical Conditions of Accumulation

Chapter 28
The Introduction of Commodity Economy

The second condition of importance for acquiring means of production and realising the surplus value is the commodity exchange and commodity economy should be introduced in societies based on natural economy as soon as their independence has been abrogated, or rather in the course of this disruptive process. Capital requires to buy the products of, and sell its commodities to, all non-capitalist strata and societies. Here at last we seem to find the beginnings of that ‘peace’ and ‘equality’, the do ut des, mutual interest, ‘peaceful competition’ and the ‘influences of civilisation’. For capital can indeed deprive alien social associations of their means of production by force, it can compel the workers to submit to capitalist exploitation, but it cannot force them to buy its commodities or to realise its surplus value. In districts where natural economy formerly prevailed, the introduction of means of transport – railways, navigation, canals – is vital for the spreading of commodity economy, a further hopeful sign. The triumphant march of commodity economy thus begins in most cases with magnificent constructions of modern transport, such as railway lines which cross primeval forests and tunnel through the mountains, telegraph wires which bridge the deserts, and ocean liners which call at the most outlying ports. But it is a mere illusion that these are peaceful changes. Under the standard of commerce, the relations between the East India Company and the spice-producing countries were quite as piratical, extortionate and blatantly fraudulent as present-day relations between American capitalists and the Red Indians of Canada whose furs they buy, or between German merchants and the Negroes of Africa. Modern China presents a classical example of the ‘gentle’, ‘peace-loving’ practices of commodity exchange with backward countries. Throughout the nineteenth century, beginning with the early forties, her history has been punctuated by wars with the object of opening her up to trade by brute force. Missionaries provoked persecutions of Christians, Europeans instigated risings, and in periodical massacres a completely helpless and peaceful agrarian population was forced to match arms with the most modern capitalist military technique of all the Great Powers of Europe. Heavy war contributions necessitated a public debt, China taking up European loans, resulting in European control over her finances and occupation of her fortifications; the opening of free ports was enforced, railway concessions to European capitalists extorted. By all these measures commodity exchange was fostered in China, from the early thirties of the last century until the beginning of the Chinese revolution.

European civilisation, that is to say commodity exchange with European capital, made its first impact on China with the Opium Wars when she was compelled to buy the drug from Indian plantations in order to make money for British capitalists. In the seventeenth century, the East India Company had introduced the cultivation of poppies in Bengal; the use of the drug was disseminated in China by its Canton branch. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, opium fell so considerably in price that it rapidly became the ‘luxury of the people’. In 1821, 4,628 chests of opium were imported to China at an average price of £265; then the price fell by 50 per cent; and Chinese imports rose to 9,621 chests in 1825, and to 26,670 chests in 1830.(1) The deadly effects of the drug, especially of the cheaper kinds used by the poorer population, became a public calamity and made it necessary for China to lay an embargo on imports, as an emergency measure. Already in 1828, the viceroy of Canton had prohibited imports of opium, only to deflect the trade to other ports. One of the Peking censors commanded to investigate the question gave the following report:

‘I have learnt that people who smoke opium have developed such a craving for this noxious drug that they make every effort to obtain this gratification. If they do not get their opium at the usual hour, their limbs begin to tremble, they break out in sweat, and they cannot perform the slightest tasks. But as soon as they are given the pipe, they inhale a few puffs and are cured immediately.

‘Opium has therefore become a necessity for all who smoke it and it is not surprising that under cross-examination by the local authorities they will submit to every punishment rather than reveal the names of their suppliers. Local authorities are also in some cases given presents to tolerate the evil or to delay any investigation already under way. Most merchants who bring goods for sale into Canton also deal in smuggled opium.

‘I am of the opinion that opium is by far a greater evil than gambling, and that opium smokers should therefore be punished no less than gamblers.’

The censor suggested that every convicted opium smoker should be sentenced to eighty strokes of the bamboo, and anybody refusing to give the name of his supplier to a hundred strokes and three years of exile. The pig tailed Cato of Peking concludes his report with a frankness staggering to any European official:

‘Apparently opium is mostly introduced from abroad by dishonest officials in connivance with profit-seeking merchants who transport it into the interior of the country. Then the first to indulge are people of good family, wealthy private persons and merchants, but ultimately the drug habit spreads among the common people. I have learnt that in all provinces opium is smoked not only in the civil service but also in the army. The officials of the various districts indeed enjoin the legal prohibition of sale by special edicts. But at the same time, their parents, families, dependants and servants simply go on smoking opium, and the merchants profit from the ban by increased prices. Even the police have been won over; they buy the stuff instead of helping to suppress it, and this is an additional reason for the disregard in which all prohibitions and ordinances are held.’(2)

Consequently, a stricter law was passed in 1833 which made every opium smoker liable to a hundred strokes and two months in the stocks, and provincial governors were ordered to report annually on their progress in the battle against opium. But there were two sequels to this campaign: on the one hand large-scale poppy plantations sprang up in the interior, particularly in the Honan, Setchuan, and Kueitchan provinces, and on the other, England declared war on China to get her to lift the embargo. These were the splendid beginnings of opening China to European civilisation – by the opium pipe.

Canton was the first objective. The fortifications of the town at the main arm of the Perl estuary could not have been more primitive. Every day at sunset a barrier of iron chains was attached to wooden rafts anchored at various distances, and this was the main defence. Moreover, the Chinese guns could only fire at a certain angle and were therefore completely ineffectual. With such primitive defences, just adequate to prevent a few merchant ships from landing, did the Chinese meet the British attack. A couple of British cruisers, then, sufficed to effect an entry on September 7, 1839. The sixteen battle-junks and thirteen fire-ships which the Chinese put up for resistance were shot up or dispersed in a matter of forty-five minutes. After this initial victory, the British renewed the attack in the beginning of 1841 with a considerably reinforced fleet. This time the fleet, consisting in a number of battle-junks, and the forts were attacked simultaneously. The first incendiary rocket that was fired penetrated through the armour casing of a junk into the powder chamber and blew the ship with the entire crew sky high. In a short time eleven junks, including the flag-ship, were destroyed, and the remainder precipitately made for safety. The action on land took a little longer. Since the Chinese guns were quite useless, the British walked right through the fortifications, climbed to a strategic position – which was not even guarded – and proceeded to slaughter the helpless Chinese from above. The casualty list of the battle was: for the Chinese 600 dead, and for the British, 1 dead and 30 wounded, more than half of the latter having been injured by the accidental explosion of a powder magazine. A few weeks later, there followed another British exploit. The forts of Anung-Hoy and North Wantong were to be taken. No less than twelve fully equipped cruisers were available for this task. What is more, the Chinese, once again forgetful of the most important thing, had omitted to fortify the island of South Wantong. Thus the British calmly landed a battery of howitzers to bombard the fort from one side, the cruisers shelling it from the other. After that, the Chinese were driven from the forts in a matter of minutes, and the landing met with no resistance. The ensuing display of inhumanity – an English report says – will be for ever deeply deplored by the British staff. The Chinese, trying to escape from the barricades, had fallen into a moat which was soon literally filled to the brim with helpless soldiers begging for mercy. Into this mass of prostrate human bodies, the sepoys – acting against orders, it is claimed – fired again and again. This is the way in which Canton was made receptive to commodity exchange.

Nor did the other ports fare better. On July 4, 1841, three British cruisers with 120 cannon appeared off the island in the entrance to the town of Ningpo. More cruisers arrived the following day. In the evening the British admiral sent a message to the Chinese governor, demanding the capitulation of the island. The governor explained that he had no power to resist but could not surrender without orders from Peking. He therefore asked for a delay. This was refused, and at half-past two in the morning the British stormed the defenceless island. Within eight minutes, the fort and the houses on the shore were reduced to smouldering rubble. Having landed on the deserted coast littered with broken spears, sabres, shields, rifles and a few dead bodies, the troops advanced on the walls of the island town of Tinghai. With daybreak, reinforced by the crews of other ships which had meanwhile arrived, they proceeded to put scaling ladders to the scarcely defended ramparts. A few more minutes gave them mastery of the town. This splendid victory was announced with becoming modesty in an Order of the Day: ‘Fate has decreed that the morning of July 5, 1841, should be the historic date on which Her Majesty’s flag was first raised over the most beautiful island of the Celestial Empire, the first European flag to fly triumphantly above this lovely countryside.’(3)

On August 25, 1841, the British approached the town of Amoy, whose forts were armed with a hundred of the heaviest Chinese guns. These guns being almost useless, and the commanders lacking in resource, the capture of the harbour was child’s play. Under cover of a heavy barrage, British ships drew near the walls of Kulangau, landed their marines, and after a short stand the Chinese troops were driven out. The twenty-six battle-junks with 128 guns in the harbour were also captured, their crews having fled. One battery, manned by Tartars, heroically held out against the combined fire of three British ships, but a British landing was effected in their rear and the post wiped out.

This was the finale of the notorious Opium War. By the peace treaty of August 27, 1842, the island of Hongkong was ceded to Britain. In addition, the towns of Canton, Amoy, Futchou, Ningpo and Shanghai were to open their ports to foreign commerce. But within fifteen years, there was a further war against China. This time, Britain had joined forces with the French. In 1857, the allied navies captured Canton with a heroism equal to that of the first war. By the peace of Tientsin (1858), the opium traffic, European commerce and Christian missions were admitted into the interior. Already in 1859, however, the British resumed hostilities and attempted to destroy the Chinese fortifications on the Peiho river, but were driven off after a fierce battle in which 464 people were wounded or killed.(4)

After that, Britain and France again joined forces. At the end of August 1860, 12,600 English and 7,500 French troops under General Cousin-Montauban first captured the Taku forts without a single shot having been fired. Then they proceeded towards Tientsin and on towards Peking. A bloody battle was joined at Palikao, and Peking fell to the European Powers. Entering the almost depopulated and completely undefended city, the victors began by pillaging the Imperial Palade, manfully helped by General Cousin himself, who was later to become field marshal and Count of Palikao. Then the Palace went up in flames, fired on Lord Elgin’s order as an imposed penance.(5)

The European Powers now obtained concessions to set up embassies in Peking, and to start trading with Tientsin and other towns. The Tchi-fu Convention of 1876 guaranteed full facilities for importing opium into China – at a time when the Anti-Opium League in England agitated against the spreading of the drug habit in London, Manchester and other industrial districts, when a parliamentary commission declared the consumption of opium to be harmful in the extreme. By all treaties made at that time between China and the Great Powers any European, whether merchant or missionary, was guaranteed the right to acquire land, to which end the legitimate arguments were ably supported by deliberate frauds

First and foremost the ambiguity of the treaty texts made a convenient excuse for European capital to encroach beyond the Treaty Ports. It used every loophole in the wording of the treaties to begin with, and subsequently blackmailed the Chinese government into permitting the missions to acquire land not alone in the Treaty Ports but in all the provinces of the realm. Their claim was based upon the notorious bare-faced distortion of the Chinese original in Abbé Delamarre’s official translation of the supplementary convention with France French diplomacy, and the Protestant missions in particular, unanimously condemned the crafty swindle of the Catholic padre, but nevertheless they were firm that the rights of French missions obtained by this fraud should be explicitly extended to the Protestant missions as well.(6)

China’s entry into commodity exchange, having begun with the Opium Wars, was finally accomplished with a series of ‘leases’ and the China campaign of 1900, when the commercial interests of European capital sank to a brazen international dogfight over Chinese land. The description of the Dowager Empress, who wrote to Queen Victoria after the capture of the Taku forts, subtly underlines this contrast between the initial theory and the ultimate practice of the ‘agents of European civilisation’:

‘To your Majesty, greeting! – In all the dealings of England with the Empire of China, since first relations were established between us, there has never been any idea of territorial aggrandisement on the part of Great Britain, but only a keen desire to promote the interests of her trade. Reflecting upon the fact that our country is now plunged into a dreadful condition of warfare, we bear in mind that a large proportion of China’s trade, seventy or eighty per cent, is done with England; moreover, your Customs duties are the lightest in the world, and few restrictions are made at your sea-ports in the matter of foreign importations; for these reasons our amiable relations with British merchants at our Treaty Ports have continued unbroken for the last half century, to our mutual benefit. – But a sudden change has now occurred and general suspicion has been created against us. We would therefore ask you now to consider that if, by any conceivable combination of circumstances, the independence of our Empire should be lost, and the Powers unite to carry out their long-plotted schemes to possess themselves of our territory’ – (in a simultaneous message to the Emperor of Japan, the impulsive Tzu Hsi openly refers to ‘The earth-hungry Powers of the West, whose tigerish eyes of greed are fixed in our direction’(7)) – ‘the results to your country’s interests would be disastrous and fatal to your trade. At this moment our Empire is striving to the utmost to raise an army and funds sufficient for its protection; in the meanwhile we rely on your good services to act as mediator, and now anxiously await your decision.’(8)

Both during the wars and in the interim periods, European civilisation was busy looting and thieving on a grand scale in the Chinese Imperial Palaces, in the public buildings and in the monuments of ancient civilisation, not only in 1860, when the French pillaged the Emperor’s Palace with its legendary treasures, or in 1900, ‘when all the nations vied with each other to steal public and private property’. Every European advance was marked not only with the progress of commodity exchange, but by the smouldering ruins of the largest and most venerable towns, by the decay of agriculture over large rural areas, and by intolerably oppressive taxation for war contributions. There are more than 40 Chinese Treaty Ports – and every one of them has been paid for with streams of blood, with massacre and ruin.

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(1) 77,379 chests were imported in 1854. Later, the imports somewhat declined, owing to increased home production. Nevertheless, China remained the chief buyer. India produced just under 6,400,000 tons of opium in 1873/4, of which 6,100,000 tons were sold to the Chinese. To-day [1912] India still exports 4,800,000 tons, value £7,500,000,000, almost exclusively to China and the Malay Archipelago.

(2) Quoted by J. Scheibert, Der Krieg in China (1903), vol.ii, 179

(3) Ibid., p.207.

(4) An Imperial Edict issued on the third day of the eighth moon in the tenth year of Hsien-Feng (6/9/1860) said amongst other things:

‘We have never forbidden England and France to trade with China, and for long years there has been peace between them and us. But three years ago the English, for no good cause, invaded our city of Canton, and carried off our officials into captivity. We refrained at that time from taking any retaliatory measures, because we were compelled to recognise that the obstinacy of the Viceroy Yeh had been in some measure a cause of the hostilities. Two years ago, the barbarian Commander Elgin came north and we then commanded the Viceroy of Chihli, T’an Ting-hsiang, to look into matters preparatory to negotiations. But the barbarian took advantage of our unreadiness, attacking the Taku forts and pressing on to Tientsin. Being anxious to spare our people the horrors of war, we again refrained from retaliation and ordered Kuei Liang to discuss terms of peace. Notwithstanding the outrageous nature of the barbarians’ demands we subsequently ordered Kuei Liang to proceed to Shanghai in connection with the proposed Treaty of Commerce and even permitted its ratification as earnest of our good faith.

‘In spite of all this, the barbarian leader Bruce again displayed intractability of the most unreasonable kind, and once more appeared off Taku with a squadron of warships in the eighth Moon. Seng Ko Lin Ch’in thereupon attacked him fiercely and compelled him to make a rapid retreat From all these facts it is clear that China has committed no breach of faith and that the barbarians have been in the wrong. During the present year the barbarian leaders Elgin and Grog have again appeared off out coasts, but China, unwilling to resort to extreme measures, agreed to their landing and permitted them to come to Peking for the ratification of the Treaty.

‘Who could have believed that all this time the barbarians have been darkly plotting; and that they had brought with them an army of soldiers and artillery with which they attacked the Taku forts from the rear, and, having driven out our forces, advanced upon Tientsin!’ (I.O. Bland and E.T. Blackhouse, China under the Empress Dowager, London 1910, pp.24-5. Cf. also in this work the entire chapter, The Flight to Yehol.)

(5) These European exploits to make China receptive to commodity exchange, provide the setting for a charming episode of China’s internal history: Straight from looting the Manchu Emperor’s Summer Palace, the ‘Gordon of China’ went on a campaign against the rebels of Taiping. In fact, the suppression of the revolt was the work of the British army. But while a considerable number of Europeans, among them a French admiral, gave their lives to preserve China for the Manchu dynasty, the representatives of European commerce were eagerly grasping this opportunity to make capital out of these fights, supplying arms both to their own champions and to the rebels who went to war against them. ‘Moreover, the worthy merchant was tempted, by the opportunity for making some money, to supply both armies with arms and munitions, and since the rebels had greater difficulties in obtaining supplies than the Emperor’s men and were therefore compelled and prepared to pay higher prices, they were given priority and could thus resist not only the troops of their own government but also those of England and France’ (M. v. Brandt, 3 Jahre in Ostasien, 1911, vol.iii, China, p.11).

(6) Dr. O. Frank; Die Rechtsverhältnisse am Grundeigentum in China (Leipzig 1903), p. 82.

(7) Bland and Blackhouse, op. cit., p. 338

(8) Ibid., p.337.

Last updated on: 12.12.2008