The Labour Monthly

Marx and Engels on India

(Pt. II)

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 15, July 1933, No. 7, pp. 453-457, (2,170 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 we continue our symposium begun last month of some of the views of Marx and Engels on the economic, social and political condition of India before and after the British invasion. This section deals with the influence of gold and usury on primitive economy, the methods of robbing the Indian peasants and the break-up of primitive economy through the forceful irruption of capitalism.]

When the society producing commodities has developed the inherent Value form of the commodities, as such, to the gold form, various germs of value hitherto hidden thereupon begin to sprout. The next substantial step is the generalising of commodity forms. Gold makes objects directly produced for use into commodities by driving them into exchange. Thereupon the commodity and the gold smite the community which is engaged in social production, break one social tie after another and finally dissolve the society into a mass of private producers. Gold establishes, as in India, individual cultivation of the land in the place of communal cultivation, then it destroys the system of regular distribution of communal lands among individuals and makes ownership final, and lastly it leads to the division of the communal wood land. Whatever other causes arising from the industrial development may work along with it, gold is always the most powerful instrument for the destruction of the communal society. (Engels, Landmarks of Scientific Socialism (Anti-Dühring), p.256.)


Usury works revolutionary effects in all pre-capitalist modes of production only so far as it destroys and dissolves these forms of property, which form the solid basis of the political organisation, and which must be continually reproduced in order that the political organisation may endure. Under the Asiatic forms usury may last for a long time, without producing anything else but economic disintegration and political rottenness. Not until the other pre-requisites of capitalist production are present, does usury become a means of assisting in the formation of the new mode of production, by ruining the feudal lord and small scale production on the one hand, and centralising the means of production into capital on the other. (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx, vol. III., p.701.)


From India to Ireland the exploitation of land property in large tracts has proceeded from the tribal and village communal ownership which was the original form. Sometimes the land was cultivated in common for the benefit of the common members, sometimes in separate pieces, parcelled by the community to separate families from time to time with wood and willow land retained for communal use. (Engels, Landmarks of Scientific Socialism (Anti-Dühring), p.204.)


It is furthermore evident that in all forms, in which the direct labourer remains the “possessor” of the means of production and labour conditions of his own means of subsistence, the property relation must at the same time assert itself as a direct relation between rulers and servants, so that the direct producer is not free. This is a lack of freedom which may be modified from serfdom with forced labour to the point of a mere tributary relation. The direct producer, according to our assumption, is here in possession of his own means of production, of the material labour conditions required for the realisation of his labour and the production of his means of subsistence. He carries on his agriculture and the rural house industries connected with it as an independent producer. This independence is not abolished by the fact that these small farmers may form among themselves a more or less natural commune in production, as they do in India, since it is here merely a question of independence from the nominal lord of the soil. Under such conditions the surplus labour for the nominal owner of the land cannot be filched from them by any economic measures, but must be forced from them by other measures, whatever may be the form assumed by them.1 (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx, vol. III., pp.918-919.)


The obstacles presented by the internal solidity and articulation of pre-capitalistic, national, modes of production to the corrosive influence of commerce is strikingly shown in the intercourse of the English with India and China. The broad basis of the mode of production is here formed by the unity of small agriculture and domestic industry, to which is added in India the form of communes resting upon the common ownership of the land, which, by the way, was likewise the original form in China. In India the English exerted simultaneously their direct political and economic power as rulers and landlords for the purpose of disrupting these small economic organisations. 2 The English commerce exerts a revolutionary influence on these organisations and tears them apart only to the extent that it destroys by the lower prices of its goods the spinning and weaving industries, which are an archaic and integral part of this unity. And even so this work of dissolution is proceeding very slowly. It proceeds still more slowly in China, where it is not backed up by any direct political power on the part of the English. The great economy and saving in time resulting from the direct connection of agriculture and manufacture offer here the most dogged resistance to the products of great industries, whose prices are everywhere perforated by the dead expense of their process of circulation. On the other hand, Russian commerce, unlike the English, leaves the economic basis of Asiatic production untouched. 3 (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx, vol. III., p.392.)


Everything is perishable. The transoceanic steamboats and the railroads of North and South America and India enabled very peculiar masses of land to enter into competition upon the European grain markets. There were on the one hand the North American prairies, the Argentine pampas, steppes, made fertile for the plow by nature itself, virgin soil, which offered rich harvest for years to come even with a primitive cultivation and without any fertilisation. Then there were the lands of the Russian and Indian communes, that had to sell a portion of their product, and an increasing one at that, for the purpose of obtaining money for the taxes wrung from them by the pitiless despotism of the state, very often by means of torture. These products were sold without regard to their cost of production, sold at the prices offered by the dealer, because the peasant had to have money under all circumstances when tax-paying day came round. And against the competition of the virgin prairie soils and of the Russian and Indian peasants ground down by taxation, the European capitalist farmer and peasant could not stand up at the old rents. A portion of the soil of Europe fell definitely out of the competition for the raising of grain, the rents fell everywhere. Falling prices and falling productivity of the additional investment of capital became the rule for Europe. This accounts for the woes of the landlords from Scotland to Italy, and from Southern France to Eastern Prussia. Fortunately, all prairie lands have not been taken under cultivation. There are enough of them left to ruin all the great landlords of Europe and the small ones into the bargain.—F.E. (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, by Karl Marx, vol. III., p.842-843.)


Owing to the peculiar form of rent in kind, by which it is bound to a definite kind of products and of production, owing furthermore to the indispensable combination of agriculture and domestic industry attached to it, also to the almost complete self-sufficiency in which the peasant family supports itself and to its independence from markets and from the movements of production and history in the social spheres outside of it, in short, owing to the character of natural economy in general this form is quite suitable for becoming the basis of stationary conditions of society, such as we see in Asia. Here, as previously in the form of labour rent, ground rent is the normal form of surplus value, and thus of surplus labour, that is of the entire surplus labour performed without any equivalent by the direct producer for the benefit of the owner of his essential means of production, the land, a labour which is still performed under compulsion, although no longer in the old brutal form. The profit, if, falsely anticipating, we may so call that portion of the direct producer’s labour which exceeds his necessary labour and which he keeps for himself, has so little to do with determining the rent in kind, that this profit rather grows up behind the back of the rent and finds its natural limit in the size of the rent in kind. This rent may assume dimensions which seriously threaten the reproduction of the conditions of labour, of the means of production. It may render an expansion of production more or less impossible, and grind the direct producers down to the physical minimum of means of subsistence. This is particularly the case, when this form is met and exploited by a conquering industrial nation, as India is by the English. (Marx Capital, vol. III., pp.924-925.)


Domestic handicrafts and manufacturing labour, as side issues to agriculture, which forms the basis, is the pre-requisite of that mode of production upon which natural economy rests, in European antiquity and Middle Ages as well as in the Indian Commune of the present day, in which the traditional organisation has not yet been destroyed. The capitalist mode of production completely dissolves this connection. This process may be studied on a large scale during the last third of the 28th century in England. (Marx, Capital. vol. III., p.913.)


Dr. Bowring says: “I hold in my hand a correspondence of the governor-general with the East India Company. This correspondence is concerning the weavers of the Dacca district. The governor says in his letter: ‘A few years ago the East India Company received from six to eight million pieces of calico woven upon the looms of the country. The demand fell off gradually and was reduced to about a million pieces. At this moment it has almost entirely ceased.’ Moreover, in 1800, North America received from India nearly 800,000 pieces of cotton goods. In 1830 it did not take even 4,000. Finally, in 1800 a million pieces were shipped to Portugal; in 1830 Portugal did not receive above 20,000.

“The reports on the distress of the Indian weavers are terrible. And what is the origin of that distress? The presence on the market of English manufacturers, the production of the same article by means of the power-loom. A great number of the weavers died of starvation the remainder have gone over to other employment, and chiefly to field labour. Not to be able to change employment, amounted to a sentence of death. And at this moment the Dacca district is crammed with English yarns and calicoes. The Dacca muslin, renowned all over the world for its beauty and firm texture, has also been eclipsed by the competition of English machinery. In the whole history of commerce, it would, perhaps, be difficult to find suffering equal to what these whole classes in India had to submit to.”

Mr. Bowring’s speech is the more remarkable because the facts quoted by him are correct, and the phrases with which he seems to palliate them are characterised by the hypocrisy common to all free trade discourse. He represents the workers as means of production which must be superseded by less expensive means of production, pretends to see in the labour of which he speaks a wholly exceptional kind of labour, and in the machine which has crushed out the weavers an equally exceptional kind of machine. He forgets that there is no kind of manual labour which may not one day share the fate of the hand-loom weavers. (Karl Marx, A Speech on Free Trade included as Appendix in The Poverty of Philosophy pp.220-221.)

(To be Continued)

[With the September issue it is hoped to commence a series of articles embodying the most important statements of Marx and Engels on the situation in Britain drawn mainly from their hitherto untranslated correspondence. Further details will be announced with the next issue.]



1. After a country had been conquered, the next step for the conqueror was always to take possession of the human beings also.

2. If any nation’s history, then it is the history of the English management of India which is a string of unsuccessful and really absurd (and in practice infamous) experiments in economics. In Bengal they created a caricature of English landed property on a large scale; in south-eastern India a caricature of small allotment property; in the northwest they transformed to the utmost of their ability the Indian commune with common ownership of the soil into a caricature of itself. (F.E.)

3. Since Russia has begun making frantic exertions to develop its own capitalist production, which is exclusively dependent on its home market and the neighbouring Asiatic states, this is also gradually changing. (F.E.)