The Labour Monthly

Marx and Engels on India

(Pt. I)

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 15, June 1933, No. 6, pp. 392-399, (3,553 words)
Transcriptionp: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

[With this issue the LABOUR MONTHLY begins the publication of a symposium of Marx’ and Engels’ views on the economic, social and political condition of India before and after the British occupation. Although drawn from sources most of which are accessible to the British reader, the excerpts thus brought together reveal the extent to which the investigations of the founders of scientific socialism penetrated to the bases of Imperialist exploitation of colonial countries. The tremendous and thorough-going analysis to which both Marx and Engels subjected all phases of the development of economy from its earliest forms, and not merely its late capitalist phase, and even more their genius for correlating economic and social phenomena drawn from very diverse and unconnected sources are finely revealed in the excerpts. At a time when Imperialism was only in its nascent stage, when capitalist economists themselves had only the haziest and most conflicting notions as to the economic laws governing the methods adopted by imperialist countries to extract surplus value from subject colonial races, Marx and Engels glaringly disclosed the forces governing the relations between the capitalist exploiting and the colonial exploited countries, with biting sarcasm ridiculing the efforts of the economist apologists for capitalism and pointing out the fatuity of their pseudo-economic figleaves as a respectable covering for its loathsome nakedness. The first group, printed below, deals with the nature and development of primitive communal economy in general and that of India in particular. Later excerpts will deal with ground rent in its various phases of development, the break-up of primitive economy through the forceful irruption of capitalism, the methods adopted by that capitalism to drain the economy of the colonial countries so retarding their economic development, and the problems arising out of the balance of trade and rates of exchange between England and India.]

The Basis, Development, and Disintegration of Indian Communal Economy

To be sure, aside from monogamy, oriental polygamy and Indo Tibetan polyandry were known; but these three forms could not be arranged in any historical order and stood side by side without any connection. That some nations of ancient history and some savage tribes of the present day did not trace their descent to the father but to the mother, hence considered the female lineage as alone valid that many nations of our time prohibit inter-marrying inside of certain large groups, the extent of which was not yet ascertained and that this custom is found in all parts of the globe—these facts were known, indeed, and more examples were continually collected. But nobody knew how to make use of them. Even in E. B. Taylor’s “Researches into the Early History of Mankind,” etc. (1865), they are only mentioned as “queer customs” together with the usage of some savage tribes to prohibit the touching of burning wood with iron tools, and similar religious absurdities. (Engels, The Origin of the Family, p.13.)


Therefore, it is a troublesome and not always profitable task to work your way through the big volume of Bachofen.1 Still, all this does not curtail the value of his fundamental work. He was the first to replace the assumption of an unknown primeval condition of licentious sexual intercourse by the demonstration that ancient classical literature points out a multitude of traces proving the actual existence among Greeks and Asiatics of other sexual relations before monogamy. These relations not only permitted a man to have intercourse with several women, but also left a woman free to have sexual intercourse with several men without violating good morals. This custom did not disappear without leaving as a survival the form of a general surrender for a limited time by which women had to purchase the right of monogamy. Hence descent could originally only be traced by the female line, from mother to mother. The sole legality of the female line was preserved far into the time of monogamy with assured, or at least acknowledged, paternity. Consequently, the original position of the mothers as the sole absolutely certain parents of their children secured for them and for all other women a higher social level than they have ever enjoyed since. Although Bachofen biased by his mystic conceptions, did not formulate these propositions so clearly, still he proved their correctness. This was equivalent to a complete revolution in 1861. (Engels, The Origin of the Family, p.16.)


Morgan, 2 who spent the greater part of his life among the Iroquois in the State of New York and who had been adopted into one of their tribes, the Senecas, found among them a system of relationship that was in contradiction with their actual family relations. Among them existed what Morgan terms the syndasmian or pairing family, a monogamous state easily dissolved by either side. The offspring of such a couple was identified and acknowledged by all the world. There could be no doubt to whom to apply the terms father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister. But the actual use of these words was not in keeping with their fundamental meaning. For the Iroquois addresses as sons and daughters not only his own children, but also those of his brothers; and he is called father by all of them. But the children of his sisters he calls nephews and nieces, and they call him uncle. Vice-versa, an Iroquois woman calls her own children as well as those of her sisters sons and daughters and is addressed as mother by them. But the children of her brothers are called nephews and nieces, and they call her aunt. In the same way, the children of brothers call one another brothers and sisters, and so do the children of sisters. But the children of a sister call those of her brother cousins, and vice versa. And these are not simply meaningless terms, but expressions of actually existing conceptions of proximity and remoteness, equality or inequality of consanguinity.

These conceptions serve as the fundament of a perfectly elaborated system of relationship, capable of expressing several hundred different relations of a single individual. More still, this system is not only fully accepted by all American Indians—no exception has been found so far—but it is also in use with hardly any modifications among the original inhabitants of India, among the Dravidian tribes of the Deccan and the Gaura tribes of Hindustan.

The terms of relationship used by the Tamils of Southern India and by the Seneca-Iroquois of New York State are to this day identical for more than two hundred different family relations. And among these East Indian tribes also, as among all American Indians, the relations arising out of the prevailing form of the family are not in keeping with the system of kinship. (Engels, The Origin of the Family, p.35 et seq.)


What does the term “unrestricted sexual intercourse” mean? Simply, that the restrictions in force now were not observed formerly . . . . If anything is certain, it is that jealousy is developed at a comparatively late stage. The same is true of incest. Not only brother and sister were originally man and wife, but also the sexual intercourse between parents and children is permitted to this day among many nations. Bancroft3 testifies to the truth of this among the Kaviats of the Behring Strait, the Kadiaks of Alaska, the Tinnehs in the interior of British North America Letourneau4 compiled reports of the same fact in regard to the Chippeway Indians, the Cooccos in Chile, the Carribeans, the Carens in Indo-China, not to mention the tales of ancient Greeks and Romans about the Parthians, Persians, Scythians, Huns and so forth. (Engels, The Origin of the Family, p.43.)


This or a similar form of group marriage also furnishes the easiest explanation of the reports of Herodotus and other ancient writers concerning community of women among savage and barbarian nations. This is true, furthermore, of Watson’s and Kaye’s5 tale about the Tikurs of Audh (north of the Ganges): “They live together (i.e., sexually) almost indiscriminately in large communities, and though two persons may be considered as being married, still the tie is only nominal.” (Engels, The Origin of the Family, p.49.)


Indeed, the polygamy of one man was evidently the product of slavery, confined to certain exceptional positions. In the Semitic patriarchal family, only the patriarch himself, or at best a few of his sons, practice polygamy, the others must be satisfied with one wife. This is the case to-day in the whole Orient. Polygamy is a privilege of the wealthy and distinguished, and is mainly realised by purchase of female slaves. The mass of the people live in monogamy. Polyandry in India and Tibet is likewise an exception. Its surely not uninteresting origin from group marriage requires still closer investigation. In its practice it seems, by the way, much more tolerant than the jealous Harem establishment of the Mohammedans. At least among the Nairs of India, three, four or more men have indeed one woman in common but every one of them may have a second woman in common with three or more other men and in the same way a third, fourth, &c. It is strange that McLennan6 did not discover the new class of “club marriage” in these marital clubs, in several of which one may be a member which he himself describes. This marriage club business is, however, by no means actual polyandry. It is on the contrary, as Giraud-Teulon7 already remarks, a specialised form of group marriage. The men live in polygamy, the women in polyandry. (Engels, The Origin of the Family, p.74.)


Among certain nations it sometimes happens that the older men, the chief and sorcerer-priests, exploit the community of women for their own benefit and monopolise all the women. But in their turn they must restore the old community during certain festivities and great assemblies, permitting their wives to enjoy themselves with the young men. A whole series of examples of such periodical saturnalia restoring for a short time the ancient sexual freedom is quoted by Westermarck8 (“The History of Human Marriage,” p.28-29), among the Hos, the Santals, the Punjas and Kotars in India, among some African nations, &c. Curiously enough Westermarck concludes that this is a survival, not of group marriage, the existence of which he denies, but—of a rutting season which primitive man had in common with other animals. (Engels, The Origin of the Family, p.62.)


In India, the household community with collective agriculture is already mentioned by Nearchus at the time of Alexander the Great, and it exists to this day in the same region, in the Punjab and the whole North-West of the country. In the Caucasus it was located by Kovalevski9 himself.

In Algeria it is still found among the Kabyles. Even in America it is said to have existed. It is supposed to be identified with the “Calpullis” described by Zurita in ancient Mexico. In Peru, however, Cunow (Ausland, 1890, No. 42-44) has demonstrated rather clearly that at the time of the conquest a sort of a constitution in marks (called curiously enough marca), with a periodical allotment of arable soil, and consequently individual tillage, was in existence. (Engels, The Origin of the Family, p.73)


If, in a society with capitalist production, anarchy in the social division of labour and despotism in that of the workshop are mutual conditions the one of the other, we find, on the contrary, in those earlier forms of society in which the separation of trades has been spontaneously developed, then crystallised, and finally made permanent by law, on the one hand, a specimen of the organisation of the labour of society, in accordance with an approved and authoritative plan, and on the other, the entire exclusion of division of labour in the workshop, or at all events a mere dwarf-like or sporadic and accidental development of the same.

These small and extremely ancient Indian communities, some of which have continued down to this day, are based on possession in common of the land, on the blending of agriculture and handicrafts, and on an unalterable division of labour, which serves, whenever a new community is started, as a plan and scheme ready cut and dried. Occupying areas of from 100 up to several thousand acres, each forms a compact whole producing all it requires. The chief part of the products is destined for direct use by the community itself, and does not take the form of a commodity. Hence, production here is independent of that division of labour brought about, in Indian society as a whole, by means of the exchange of commodities. It is the surplus alone, that becomes a commodity, and a portion of even that, not until it has reached the hands of the State, into whose hands from time immemorial a certain quantity of these products has found its way in the shape of rent in kind. The constitution of these communities varies in different parts of India. In those of the simplest form, the land is tilled in common, and the produce divided among the members. At the same time, spinning and weaving are carried on in each family as subsidiary industries. Side by side with the masses thus occupied with one and the same work, we find the “chief inhabitant,” who is judge, police and tax-gatherer in one; the bookkeeper who keeps the accounts of the tillage and registers everything relating thereto; another official, who prosecutes criminals, protects strangers travelling through, and escorts them to the next village; the boundary man, who guards the boundaries against neighbouring communities, the water-overseer, who distributes the water from the common tanks for irrigation; the Brahmin who conducts the religious services; the schoolmaster, who on the sand teaches the children reading and writing; the calendar-Brahmin, or astrologer, who makes known the lucky or unlucky days for seedtime and harvest, and for every other kind of agricultural work; a smith and a carpenter, who make and repair all the agricultural implements; the potter, who makes all the pottery of the village; the barber, the washerman, who washes clothes, the silver-smith, here and there the poet, who in some communities replaces the silversmith, in others the schoolmaster. This dozen of individuals is maintained at the expense of the whole community. If the population increases, a new community is founded, on the pattern of the old one, on unoccupied land. The whole mechanism discloses a systematic division of labour; but a division like that in manufactures is impossible, since the smith and the carpenter, &c., find an unchanging market, and at the most there occur, according to the sizes of the villages, two or three of each, instead of one. The law that regulates the division of labour in the community acts with the irresistible authority of a law of Nature, at the same time that each individual artificer, the smith, the carpenter, and so on, conducts in his workshop all the operations of his handicraft in the traditional way, but independently, and without recognising any authority over him. The simplicity of the organisation for production in these self-sufficing communities that constantly reproduce themselves in the same form, and when accidentally destroyed, spring up again on the spot and with the same name—this simplicity supplies the key to the secret of the unchangeableness of Asiatic societies, an unchangeableness in such striking contrast with the constant dissolution and refounding of Asiatic States, and the never-ceasing changes of dynasty. The structure of the economic elements of society remains untouched by the storm-clouds of the political sky. (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx, vol. I., p.391 et seq.)


In many industries, there are critical periods, determined by the nature of the process, during which certain definite results must be obtained. For instance, if a flock of sheep has to be shorn, or a field of wheat to be cut and harvested, the quantity and quality of the product depends on the work being begun and ended within a certain time. In these cases, the time that ought to be taken by the process is prescribed, just as it is in herring fishing. A single person cannot carve a working day of more than, say 12 hours, out of the natural day, but 100 men co-operating extend the working day to 1,200 hours. The shortness of the time allowed for the work is compensated for by the large mass of labour thrown upon the field of production at the decisive moment. The completion of the task within the proper time depends on the simultaneous application of numerous combined working days; the amount of useful effect depends on the number of labourers; this number, however, is always smaller than the number of isolated labourers required to do the same amount of work in the same period. It is owing to the absence of this kind of co-operation that, in the western part of the United States, quantities of corn, and in some parts of East India where English rule has destroyed the old communities, quantities of cotton, are yearly wasted. (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx, vol. I., p.359.)


A ridiculous presumption has gained currency of late to the effect that common property in its primitive form is specifically a Slavonian, or even exclusively Russian, form. It is the primitive form which we can prove to have existed among Romans, Teutons, and Celts; and of which numerous examples are still to be found in India, though in a partly ruined state. A closer study of the Asiatic, especially of Indian, forms of communal ownership would show how from the different forms of primitive communism different forms of its dissolution have been developed. Thus, e.g., the various original types of Roman and Teuton private property can be traced back to various forms of Indian communism. (Karl Marx, Critique of Political Economy, p.29.)


Co-operation, such as we find it at the dawn of human development, among races who live by the chase, or say, in the agriculture of Indian communities, is based, on the one hand, on ownership in common of the means of production, and on the other hand, on the fact, that in those cases, each individual has no more torn himself off from the navel-string of his tribe or community, than each bee has freed itself from connexion with the hive. Such co-operation is distinguished from capitalistic co-operation by both of the above characteristics. The sporadic application of co-operation on a large scale in ancient times, in the middle ages, and in modern colonies, reposes on relations of dominion and servitude, principally on slavery. (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx, vol. I., p.366.)


When men originally sprang from the lower animals they came into history, still half-wild animals, elementary, with no power over the forces of nature, still unacquainted with their own powers, as poor as the animals and hardly more productive than they. There prevailed a certain equality in the conditions of life and as far as the heads of families were concerned an equality of social condition—there was at least an absence of those class distinctions which developed later in the agricultural communities. In such a social state there were certain common interests which overrode the interests of the individual in certain respects, the settlement of disputes, the repression of individuals who exceeded their rights, the looking after the water supply, particularly in hot countries, and finally under the conditions of life in the primeval forests, religious functions. We find analogous communal duties exercised by communal officials at all periods as well in the oldest German mark communities as in India to-day. These are contemporaneous with a sort of beginning of authority and state power in a rudimentary form. (Engels, Landmarks of Scientific Socialism (Anti Dühring), p. 206.)


In the middle ages we find bookkeeping for agriculture only in the convents. But we have seen in vol. I, that a bookkeeper was installed for agriculture as early as the primitive Indian communes. Bookkeeping is then made an independent function of a communal officer. This division of labour saves time, pains and expenses, but production and bookkeeping for production remain as much two different things as a cargo of a ship and the way-bill. In the person of the bookkeeper, a part of the labour power of the commune is withdrawn from production, and the cost of his function is not reproduced by his own labour, but by a deduction from the communal product. What is true of the bookkeeper of an Indian commune, is true under changed circumstances of the bookkeeper of the capitalists. (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Marx, vol. 2, p.152.)

(To be Continued)



1. Bachofen, John Jacob. Das Mutterrecht, 1861.

2. Morgan, Lewis H. (1818-1881.) Ancient Society, 1877.

3. Bancroft, H. H. (1832-1918). Native Races of the Pacific States, 1874-76, &c.

4. Letourneau, Charles Jean Marie. L’Evolution du Marriage et de la Famille, 1888.

5. Taylor, Colonel Philip Meadows (1808-1876). The People of India: Edited by J.T. Watson and J.W. Kaye, 6 vols., 1868-72.

6. McLennan, J.F. (1827-1881). Studies in Ancient History, 1886. Primitive Marriage.

7. Giraud-Teulon, Felix. Les Origines de la Famille, 1874.

8. Westermarck, Edward Alexander (1862- ). History of Human Marriage. 1st ed., 1891.

9. Kovalevski, Makim Makimovitch (1851-1916).