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S. Stanley

Problems of Colonial India I

(April 1938)

From New International, Vol.4 No.4, April 1938, pp.113-115.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ONCE AGAIN THE COLONIAL question comes to the fore. The Far-Eastern War, accompanied by the mighty though unsuccessful resistance of the Chinese people, has again set the stage for a new act in the movements of colonial masses for liberation from their imperialist rulers.

Such movements have always been characterized by the sweep and scope of the revolutionary powers they unleash. There is every historic reason to believe that this new cycle in colonial movements will surpass all others. Thus, the colonial problem demands the imperative study of every Marxist practitioner. As India is an almost ideal illustration of a backward country under the domination of a foreign, imperialist nation a study of its problems should serve to determine concretely what a general, revolutionary colonial policy has to face.

International-imperialist colonial policy today is influenced, above all, by the disintegration of the vast British Empire. In their ever-growing desperation, the imperialist rulers of England turn with renewed ferocity to India for their salvation. This has meant a deepening oppression and exploitation of the Indian masses in the name of senile British capitalism. With this new imperialist speed-up has come its inevitable counter-part – a revival of the Indian National Liberation movement, practically dormant since 1933. The purpose of this article is two-fold: (1) to give a brief sketch of Indian history under British rule, along with the present economic set-up in India; (2) to outline the Indian nationalist and revolutionary movement, including the more recent developments in the Indian Nationalist Congress since its last meeting (Dec., 1936) and the movement’s future prospects.


Lord Brentford in his speech to Parliament:

We did not conquer India for the benefit of the Indians. I know that it is said at missionary meetings that we have conquered India to raise the level of the Indians. That is cant. We conquered India as an outlet for the goods of Great Britain. We conquered India by the sword, and by the sword we shall hold it.

I am interested in missionary work in India and have done much work of that kind, but I am not such a hypocrite as to say that we hold India for the Indians. We hold it as the finest outlet for British goods in general, and for Lancashire goods in particular.

F.J. Shore (Indian Colonial Administrator):

The fundamental principle of the English has been to make the whole Indian nation subservient, in every possible way, to the interests and benefits of themselves. They have been taxed to the utmost limit; every successive province, as it has fallen into our possession, has been made a field for higher exaction ... (Quoted in Reynolds, The White Sahibs of India)

For 250 years England has been in India. Writing in 1853, Marx summed up the various phases of Indian policy pursued up to that year in the following words:

“The aristocracy wanted to conquer India, the moneyocracy to plunder it and the millocracy to undersell it.”

As far back as the 1500’s Dutch, English and French merchants had contacted Indian coast towns and brought back to the West the products of its famous handicraft industries. By 1708 the British East India Company – that crowning product of mercantilist, oligarchic England – had secured from the British king the right to monopolize all trade with India. In that year began the territorial conquest of the land of the Hindus. Ancient India had always been a tempting land of easy access to conquerors. It had known scores of invasions from the east and west, the last of antiquity being those of Alexander the Great and the Romans. But because of its great size and its superior civilization India had always been able either to repel or to absorb the invaders.

With the English the story was entirely different. Besides representing the superior western civilization they came from the most advanced and unified country of the time. Utilizing the internal struggles between various warring divisions of the Chief Mogul, The Moguls, Mahrattas and Northern Afghans; British troops began the conquest of East India without much difficulty. They clashed with Dutch and French mercantilists, but the latter were no match for the English. (The Napoleonic Wars, the French and Indian Wars in America, were reflective aspects of this rivalry over India.) Having obtained a free hand, the British were able to secure control over the territory of one Mogul after the other, reaching as far as the Punjab region.

During this extended period of conquest, a revolution – gigantic in its scope and historic implications – was sweeping over British India’s expanding territory: destroying, transforming, uprooting the most remarkable of all ancient civilizations. The British mercantilists and later the British industrial bourgeoisie tore to bits the whole fabric of the ancient Indian social and economic structure. At the same time they laid the material and social basis for the ultimate emancipation of the Indians not only from ancient Asiatic despotism under which they labored for so many centuries but also from the neo-despotism of British rule itself. Marx clearly recognized this.

“Whatever may have been the crimes of England, she was the unconscious tool of bringing about that [future] revolution.” (Article in New York Tribune, June 25, 1854)

While emphatically denouncing the cruelty, hypocrisy and “scientific barbarism” employed in subduing the natives, Marx nevertheless saw the historically progressive role performed by the British. The English rulers might “drink the nectar of India from the skulls of the slain” but that drink would turn into a poison that one day would spell their death!

The nature of this British revolution is clear. Ancient civilizations of the East were built primarily upon two foundations. (1) Communal ownership of the land (no private land-ownership). This Marx called “primitive communism”. (2) A system of artificial soil irrigation, vitally necessary to the agricultural life of the country. (The countries of Asia Minor, Egypt, India.) In India, upon this material foundation there had arisen the independent Indian communal villages and village confederations, with their limited, closed-in economy; the famous handicraft and manufacturing industries (loom and spinning-wheel); the innumerable caste divisions resting upon a minute, hereditary division of labor; the numerous variations of mystical and fantastic religions and cults; finally, the despotic political state (the Mogul) with its bureaucratic and priestly adjuncts. All this the British destroyed.

With the ruthlessness of armed force they overthrew the native village communities and industries. Indian manufactures (mainly hand-woven cloths) were excluded from importation into England as early as 1697. Rickarts, an extensive English writer on Indian affairs, estimated that in 60 years of the 18th Century, one thousand millions sterling had been brought back from India. The London Daily News wrote,

“The whole wealth of the country is absorbed and the development of its industry is checked by a government which hangs like an incubus over it.”

Indian agriculture fell into complete decay as the system of artificial irrigation (a system requiring continual care and repair) broke down. At the famous trial of Warren Hastings in England, it was revealed that in 1771 – a year in which the East India Co. reported a large increase in its dividends – one-third of the Bengal population, i.e., 10,000,000, had died as the result of a ghastly famine! The 18th Century, the century which saw the British East India Company at the height of its power, was for India a time of unequalled pillage and destruction, outstripping even the efforts of Spain’s Conquistadores in Mexico and Peru.

England herself, meanwhile, was changing. The mercantilist-financial aristocracy found itself confronted by an infinitely more powerful English bourgeoisie – private merchants and industrial capitalists. As the exploiter himself changed, so did the nature of his exploitation. By 1813 the old oligarchy (East India Co.) had lost its trade monopoly to private merchants and was well on its way out of Indian affairs. The Company still ruled the land, but open attacks were leveled against it in Parliament. Cotton cloth and cheap manufactures from Manchester mills began to pour into India and complete the destruction of the indigenous industry. In 1813, for the first time India had a trade balance on the importing side.

A new period – one of capitalist-imperialist penetration – had started. India became more important than ever for Industrial England. Further military encroachment, this time under imperialist direction, took place. For the first time in thousands of years of Indian history, systems of private ownership of land and land tenancy (Zemindaree and Ryotwar) were created. India became a prime source of food stuffs. English-owned plantations (run by forced labor) were established to furnish these needs. Heavy land taxes were placed upon the peasantry. The result has been described by Isaiah Bowman in his The New World:

“Pressing upon the people of India in a manner to produce great distress is the land tax, in addition to which is the water tax in the irrigated areas. The land tax keeps the mass of the population in a state bordering upon slavery. Millions cannot get sufficient food. At the end of his year of labour, the farmer finds his crop divided between landlord and the government. He has to go into debt to the village shopkeeper, getting credit for food and seed in the ensuing year. Since 240,000,000 people in India are connected directly or indirectly with agriculture, this means that a large majority of them, probably two-thirds, are living in a state of squalor.”

The primitive agronomy which had sufficed to give each community its simple necessities was thus “improved” upon by private ownership. Railroads – always the forerunner of modern industry – -were built. The static, hereditary Hindu society crumbled. New mobile and shifting classes took the place of the ancient groupings. The “millocracy” came into control both in England and India. Marx wrote in 1853,

“At the same rate at which the cotton manufactures became of vital interest for the whole social frame of Great Britain, East India became of vital interest for the British cotton manufacturers.”

By 1857 the English industrial bourgeoisie was sufficiently powerful at home to force the revocation of the East India Company’s charter. It demagogically used the Great Sepoy Mutiny, which had occurred in that year and had been aimed at all of British rule, as justification for this act. In Parliament, the Mutiny was laid at the door of the Company and its innumerable evils.

The new landlords immediately proceeded to display their passionate love of the Indian masses by levying upon them a tax of 40 million pounds (the cost of suppressing the 1857 Revolt!). The Better Government of India Act was adopted, placing the country under direct control of the British Parliament. From then on the natives received the benefits of naked imperialist rule. “Scientific barbarism” raised to a higher plane took on the form of a different type of exploitation and expropriation of wealth. This is how Marx described it, writing in 1881:

“What the English take from them [the Indians] annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless to the Hindus, pensions for military and civil service men, for Afghanistan and other wars, etc., etc. – what they take from them without any equivalent and quite apart from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India, speaking only of the value of the commodities the Indians have to send over to England gratuitously and annually – it amounts to more than the total sum of income of the 60 million agricultural and industrial laborers of India! This is a bleeding process with a vengeance!” (Emphasis as in original.)

It is this same process, now pushed with the energy born of despair, that has continued down to our day.


What is the present economic situation within India itself? School teachers generally divide the country into two parts: British India and Native India. Such a division is sheer nonsense, being incorrect even in the geographic sense. All of India is British if by that we understand British military, economic and political domination. The ostensibly “independent” Native Princes (there are, according to the 1930 census, 562 native states covering an area of 711,032 square miles and having a population of 80,838,527 out of the total Indian population of 351,399,880) clearly “rule” only by permission of the British. As will be shown later, these Princes exercise no independent functions in their feudatory states. They are retained solely because they possess that added skill, born of long tradition and practice; in despoiling the peasant masses.

Of the total population, 75% to 80% live on the land. India is therefore overwhelmingly agrarian, consisting almost entirely of a huge, backward peasantry living in a most primitive state. In every respect the country belongs to the group of backward, colonial countries. To an even greater extent than China it is bound to the traditions and social practices of its antiquity. The great variety of religions (Hindu, Mohammedan, Buddhist, Animist, Christian, Sikh, Parsee, Hebrew, etc., etc.) testify to the poverty of historical and scientific development and the ignorance that permeates the entire country. Barbarous practices of the past (sutree, purdah, etc.) date back to days long before the conquest of East India by Alexander. Yet they are still widely practiced. England’s hypocritical attempts to “stamp out” such customs have recorded “success” solely in school text-books.

There is no contradiction between these facts and the historic fact that England fulfilled a revolutionary role in India. The point is that that role has long ceased and has now become the major obstacle to even the most elementary social or cultural advancement. The English bourgeoisie, the international imperialist Frankenstein, bases its work in India today on but a single premise: the more widespread the poverty, superstition and ignorance, the more stable tends to become the British “Raj”. Thus, 320 out of 350 million people are illiterate!

Since the overturn of the native economy there has been relatively little economic or industrial development in the country. Is this due to a paucity in natural resources? On the contrary, the country is rich in mineral and mining deposits. Coal is found in every part of India, copper, iron ore, vast areas of petroleum. Rare minerals exist (tungsten, manganese), but are hardly mined. Transportation is extremely poor and still largely primitive. True, the country has been loosely bound into a single unit by railroads and telegraph, but these connecting links are primarily of military importance. There are only 40,000 miles of railroad, less than 100,000 automobiles and trucks, a few airlines. Every attempt is made to keep apart and, above all, antagonistic toward one another, the 45 different racial groupings of the population with their 200 different languages and dialects.

To imperialist England, India is useful for two primary purposes: to draw forth from the rural population the nourishment provided by its abundant crops of cotton and foodstuffs (wheat, rice, sugar cane, tea, etc.). Then to sell upon the Indian market its cotton and textile manufactures, small manufactured articles, machinery, etc. It should be thoroughly understood that English capitalism and the entire British Empire it has constructed could not possibly survive without the annual stimulants received in the form of Indian raw materials, trade and commerce. This alone disposes of reformist illusions regarding the possibility of a peaceful severance of the ties that bind India to England. Let us sooner expect British capitalism to commit hari-kari than to let go of India! Only deliberate agents of British imperialism such as the leaders of the British Labor Party (Atlee, Citrine, Herbert Morrison ...) envisage a peaceful (that is, no) relinquishing of the hold upon India. To Marxists it is axiomatic that only through a determined revolutionary struggle can the Indian masses hope to free themselves from Britain. The role of Ghandism, to be analyzed below, has further revealed the necessity of an organized, violent struggle.

But England has not completely checked industrial growth. There have been erected – mainly since the World War – 6,713 factories employing 1,215,000 workers (1931). Cotton spinning and weaving mills account for 502 of these and employ 381,265 workers. Next in order of the number of workers employed are the jute industry, rice mills, munition plants, lumber mills, tea factories, etc. We thus find in India that economic class essential to the carrying out of the Indian revolution – the modern, industrial proletariat. The Indian proletariat (including the highly important transport workers) counts in its ranks 10% to 11% of the total working population. Highly exploited because of the rapid concentration of Indian industry in the hands of a few members of the English and Native bourgeoisie, it has quickly arrived at a realization of its historic position and gropes instinctively for revolutionary weapons to employ against its enemies. At the same time, having sprung but recently from out of the great peasant mass, it feels the necessity of forming a revolutionary alliance with (hat section of the population.

We cannot emphasize too strongly capitalist England’s dire necessity to retain its grasp upon India. In 1934 she was Britain’s best customer, taking close to 200 million dollars worth of goods. This meant that England supplied over 40% of the total import trade, with Japan, her sharpest rival in competitive Indian imperialist activity, still far behind (15.7%). Indian raw material exports to England alone were worth 186 million dollars. The Ottawa Imperial Conference (1932), in an attempt to shut out the trade of other nations, forced India to accept preferences upon all British products. In the face of this, nothing short of a gigantic mass movement of the Indian masses, at whose head must stand the incomparably more advanced and clear-sighted Indian proletariat, will win liberation from England. Even such a movement would face a terrific opposition – an opposition that would resort to every modern weapon of mass murder. We shall return to the obstacles faced by the revolution in examining the Indian Nationalist movement.

Before doing that, however, we shall list some of the more direct means employed by England in controlling the restless masses. It will make more apparent the utter hopelessness of the “methods” embodied in the “non-violence” doctrine. The Native Princes and the native bourgeoisie are the first arm of the British “Raj”. The Princes are abject tools of their British masters – the finances and economy of their states are run by the British; foreign affairs and relations, military and taxing powers are no longer in their hands. Real power resides with the British appointed “advisers”. Over the Prince’s head is suspended the perpetual threat of incorporating his land into British India if he should become recalcitrant.

England has likewise assiduously cultivated a native bourgeoisie, made up not only of industrial capitalists, but also of great landowners, money-lenders, and bankers. In actual daily life, it is largely this native bourgeoisie, “middlemen” for British imperialists, which exploits the workers and peasants. Another important adjunct of imperialist domination is the armed force, Britain maintains two highly trained armies in India: the British Regular Army (58,000 men); the Indian Army consisting of 166,000 high caste Indians, officered by Britishers (the infamous Nabobs of Rudyard Kipling). Attached to this armed force is the Royal British Air Force whose English pilots have had great training through bombing (like Mussolini’s pilots in Ethiopia) participants in local tribal revolts deep in the country’s interior. In essence, British rule depends upon these front-line, military forces for its continued sojourn in India. And finally, the Indian Civil Service. For a long period made up solely of the favorite sons of the English aristocracy (from Oxford and Cambridge), or retired army officers, it has now relaxed far enough to include native Hindus from the supremely aristocratic Brahman castes. A rigidly controlled and bureaucratized outfit, it eats up an amazing proportion of the country’s annually producted wealth in the form of salaries and large retirement pensions. Inspectors, land assessors, tax-collectors, petty supervisory officials, etc., swell this hated parasitic growth upon the backs of the Indian masses.

(The second part of this article will be published in the next issue.)

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