2008 - Re-reading ‘Marx on British India’

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Much has already been written about Marx’s writings on India. Is there need for more? Going by the Introduction and Appreciation seen in a new collection, the answer can only be an emphatic yes.[1]

Given the history of invasions of the Indian sub-continent by various forces and the empires they established, Marx raised an important question – what distinguished British rule from them? His answer was the civilisational ‘superiority’ of British colonialism.[2] Superiority is a loaded term. Our contemporary critical sense, enriched by the insights of Edward Said and many others, calls for a closer look. But that cannot negate historical progress and the superior capabilities of any new social system compared to earlier ones; in all respects, including the appropriation of their knowledge. This was as true of the incorporation of tribal societies in the Indian sub-continent into caste-feudalism as it was for colonialism. The ‘superior civilisation’ of the British was evidently a product of its capitalist nature and in this respect the decisive difference noted by Marx, its inflicting a ‘misery of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind’ can’t be denied.[3] This refutes the charge of Orientalism and exposes a basic flaw in this whole stream of reading. But that can’t be a plea for avoiding critical reading itself.

The fashion of blaming the faulty and biased source materials Marx had to rely on and passing by an examination of how he used them or how they influenced him is certainly not Marxian. Marx was critical in his use of that material, but not completely so. This was influenced not only by the paucity of additional inputs but also by the Enlightmentalist milieu of that period. Explicit traces of this influence can be seen, for example, in Marx’s views on the ‘Hindu’ religion, where he correctly criticises it for subjecting humans (the “sovereign of nature”) to a brutalising worship of nature.[4] This characterisation of ‘Hindu’ (properly speaking Brahmanic) religion obviously does great injustice to its sophisticated philosophical thinking and misses the intriguing paradox of its co-existence with animism in a single belief system. We can attribute this to faulty information. But can the supposedly sovereign role assigned to human beings avoid critical correction? It even violates Marx’s own views on the nature-human metabolism.[5] Yet another example is where he reasons that the state’s running of irrigation systems in Asian countries, unlike private enterprise in medieval Europe, was necessitated by ‘civilisation … (being) … too low to call into life voluntary association’ apart from the vastness of territory.[6] Low in civilisation, yet high enough to develop technology and organisation for such enterprises?

So what does this say about ‘historical superiority’? We need to be critical about the ‘absolute’ quality usually vested in it. It has to be tempered with the recognition that what is surpassed as inferior may well contain some superior aspects. The relativeness of ‘superiority’ to the future as well as to the past, given by class, gender, racial and various other biases accompanying it, must never be ignored.

Even a cursory reading of Marx’s writings in the light of such new sensibilities would call for acknowledging such drawbacks. But sadly enough, this collection, edited by noted Marxist historians, has chosen to remain silent. Even worse, we see Prabhat Patnaik declaring those articles to be “a real classic on Indian history”![7]

Some of Marx’s views, based on faulty sources, such as the concept of an Asiatic mode of production based on supposedly stagnant village communities and a despotic state, have been abandoned by most Marxist historians. The fact that even the ‘hereditary divisions of labour’ congealed in the caste order (correctly seen by Marx as a decisive impediment to progress) was itself never immobile, is now widely accepted.[8] Similarly his characterisation of hand spinning and hand weaving as the pivots of village society, his view on the absence of private property in land, of the paralysis of productive forces for want of means of transport, of state functions as merely plunder and public works (irrigation) also stand corrected. Marx didn’t know of the Harappan civilisation, of the Mauryan or Guptan empires (by no means foreign), of the productive tasks prescribed for the state by Kuatilya and its role in the expansion of settled agriculture or of the locally developed technologies in agriculture and crafts. But we do and must therefore call into question Marx’s opinion that British colonialism effected the ‘greatest and … only social revolution…’ in the sub-continent.[9]Kosambi, page 308. 1 To give it the halo of a ‘classic’ view of our history would be making a laughing stock of Marxism and a departure from the creative advances made in applying it to the study of this sub-continent. DD Kosambi, a pioneer in this matter, observed, “The advance of agrarian village economy over tribal country is the first great social revolution in India: the change from an aggregate of gentes to a society.”[10] Further, “Marx noted only the backwardness engendered by the caste system, the grip of the most disgusting rituals… which sickeningly degraded man. On the other hand, without these superstitions assimilated by Brahmanism at need… tribal society could not have been converted peacefully to new forms nor free savages changed into helpless serfs…”[11] Despite Kosambi’s mistaken subscription to Marx’s view that modern industry introduced by colonialism would dissolve caste[12], his characterisation of the incorporation of tribal societies through the caste order as a more or less peaceful process and his overlooking the rituals and superstitions intrinsic to Brahmanism, these insights stand as valuable stepping stones.

There is another matter. Take Prabhat Patnaik’s trumpeting the “lucidity of (Marx’s) exposition of the dialectics of the colonial impact”. Yes, Marx correctly drew attention to the dual role of British rule, its destructive and regenerative functions. But a careful reading of what he wrote, aided by knowledge of the actual course of developments, shows that his optimism about the regenerative role of colonialism was misplaced. Moreover, there was also the problem of viewing the prospects of colonial India through the prism of Western capitalism’s course of development. One can summarise Marx’s views as follows: through the introduction of modern industry by way of the railways and of private property in land through the zamindari and ryotwari settlements, by the political unity enforced through colonial rule, formation of a native army and the growth of a new class ‘endowed with requirements for government and imbued with European science’, along with the introduction of a ‘free press’, the British were unconsciously laying the material foundations of Western (capitalist) society. If we leave out the specificities, what stands out is a projection of an inevitable development of capitalism, more or less along the pattern witnessed in Western Europe. Furthermore, the role of force exerted by colonial political power was seen only in its transformative aspect, in breaking down the old framework.[13] Its role as a barrier to the development of capitalism, as a protector of the old order, suitably reformed, was missed. So too was the distinct nature of the capitalism fostered by colonialism. It is surprising that this is ignored by Prabhat Patnaik in his ‘Appreciation’, centred on an exposition of ‘a capitalist mode located in the midst of a subjugated pre-capitalist hinterland’ as a necessary condition of imperialism[14] and by Irfan Habib in his Introduction. We will come back to this later. Let us first examine the central premise Marx drew on to arrive at his conclusions on the role of colonial political power and the dialectics of colonial rule.

This was the destruction of handicraft, particularly of the weaving industry, by British commodity trade and the introduction of modern industry; the dissolution of the existent natural economy. But the insight of later historical research shows us that the period preceding the consolidation of British colonial rule saw large growth in the weaving sector and in cotton cultivation. It was stimulated by the new, external, demand created by colonial trade as well as by a growth of the internal market. Some of the salient features of this development were the growing separation of handicrafts from agriculture, greater division of labour and specialisation in the weaving sector, rapid growth of the weaver population in towns and emergence of new weaver settlements.[14] In view of this new knowledge shouldn’t a Marxist reflect on how, when and why the population of Dacca swelled up to 150,000, largely weavers, instead of remaining fixated on its drastic decline to 20,000 under British colonialism? Evidently the dialectics of colonial intrusion was far more complex than the destruction/regeneration noted by Marx. Too much of indigenous capitalist development cannot be read into the facts recorded above. But it was also not a mere offshoot of colonial trade. At least in some parts of the sub-continent the potential for capitalist development was emerging even before this. British colonialism did not impose its rule over a stagnant sub-continent. Nor were the conditions met by it those of classical caste-feudalism.[15] Some regions in the sub-continent were already transitional. Moreover, there is no reason to insist that capitalism must develop only through internal stimuli. The case of Japan is illustrative. There the forceful entry of Western colonial powers triggered off an internal dynamic leading to the growth of capitalism. More importantly, the later loss of interest in Japan on the part of the colonial powers, drawn to the riches of China, gave it the favourable circumstance of avoiding colonial domination and thus allowed it to take the path of capitalist development. This brings us back to the role of political power.

It wouldn’t be off the mark to assume that indigenous capitalism could have developed in the Indian sub-continent under the strong stimuli of colonial and other trade. For example, Tippu’s Mysore and to a lesser extent Thiruvithaamkoor under Marthanda Varma could have taken the trajectory of a development of capitalism from above, through state intervention, if they had remained independent. The consolidation of British colonial power was certainly one of the decisive factors preventing this. This implies a qualification of the regenerative role of British rule and draws attention to the dual role of colonial power. In the matter of regeneration, or the growth of capitalism, it was both transformative as well as suppressive. The various aspects noted by Marx no doubt led to the growth of capitalism, but of a certain type. It was shaped and warped by colonial interests, and this included the sustenance and regeneration of many elements of caste-feudalism. This was later recognised by the 3rd International under Lenin and incorporated in its views on the colonial question.[16] But a more precise characterisation of this capitalism and the class engendered by it came through Mao Tsetung’s sparse but pathbreaking illumination on bureaucrat capitalism, a capitalism fostered by imperialism and intertwined with feudalism, and class analysis of the comprador-bureaucrat bourgeoisie in China. These rich analytical tools have been totally ignored by most of the Marxist theoreticians in India.

Prabhat Patnaik and Irfan Habib are definitely of the view that colonialism, particularly imperialism, has obstructed the growth of capitalism. In his Introduction Irfan Habib records this, but with a justification for Marx who “…naturally could not have foreseen how Britain would now use administrative measures to throttle India’s industrial development.”[17] But why was this so natural? If the mill owners of Britain had blocked the sale of Indian textiles in an earlier period, they could surely be expected to employ colonial power to block the growth of a competing capitalism in the colony. Why did Marx miss this? The answer once again lies in his high expectations about the regenerative role of British rule and the consequent growth of capitalism in British India. He related this to the necessity felt by ascendant British industrial interests to create fresh productive powers after destroying local industry, precisely because they found that the power of consuming their goods (in British India) was contracting to the lowest possible point. Hence the conclusion, “You cannot continue to inundate a country with your manufactures, unless you enable it to give you some produce in return.”[18] Colonial power certainly did this enabling, but in a manner very different from what Marx expected. For a long period, the development of productive forces was mainly in the direction of ensuring raw materials for the industrial growth of Britain. The later growth of local industry was again a ‘development of underdevelopment’.

What interests us here is the contradiction seen in Prabhat Patnaik’s and Irfan Habib’s arguments. They have used the occasion of bringing out this new collection to introduce and argue out the thesis that the exploitation of the colonies was not merely a matter of primary accumulation. There is a certain ‘division of labour’ here. Patnaik visualises Marx’s articles as a window to enter into the thesis, while Irfan Habib devotes his effort to substantiate Marx’s prophecies, with some inevitable amendments. But we will be justified in treating them as one because both of them accept the central argument of Marx’s articles – capitalist growth induced in a stagnant society through the agency of colonial rule. Prabhat Patnaik has argued that Marx’s articles “… see capitalism, necessarily, within a wider setting, not in isolation but as existing amidst and coupled to pre-capitalist formations …which have been transformed by capitalism in accordance with its own needs, through political domination in the form of colonial rule.”[19] The question is about the ‘transformation’, its nature and extent. As we saw earlier, Marx envisioned a development of capitalism due to the regenerative role of British rule. This was the basis for assuming a basic, if not total, transformation of pre-capitalist society in its future course under colonial rule. Irfan Habib, favoured by Patnaik for his ‘illuminating Introduction’, would have us believe that Marx’s predictions on a bourgeois class emerging and taking the lead of a national movement[20] and industry dissolving hereditary divisions of labour upon which the Indian castes rest have been vindicated.[21] He does recognise contradictions thrown up by British rule. But this is linked to his view that “…the genesis of modern elements in India under the aegis of British dominance could not create any lasting groundwork for collaboration between the new classes and the British rulers…”[22] What he has in mind is not the proletariat or the new middle class but the bourgeoisie itself. This is sought to be substantiated by Marx’s observations on the poor response from ‘Indian Capitalists’ to the East India Company’s loan, obviously a case of reading too much into the temporary hesitation shown by the local rich in the immediate context of the 1857 revolt. If we accept these views then the ‘finale of 1947’ has produced an independent country led by a bourgeoisie strong enough to throw off the yoke of imperialist colonialism. But if that were true then there can be no reason to argue that a colonial relation, in one or another form, the exploitation of countries retained in backwardness whatever may be its degree, is ‘necessary’ for capitalism or its highest stage of imperialism. On the contrary, if such exploitation is not merely a matter of primary accumulation, if it is a ‘necessity’ of capitalism and imperialism, we must then abandon the notion of gaining independence in 1947 and accept the bitter fact of a continued, though now semi-colonial, dependence. The reality of neo-colonialism must be acknowledged.

Marx noted, “The world market itself forms the basis for this (capitalist) mode of production. On the other hand, the immanent necessity of this mode of production to produce on an ever enlarged scale tends to extend the world market continuously…”[23] The greater part of this world market of capitalism was the colonies, and at present the semi-colonial countries. The exploitation and plunder of the colonies was crucial for the primary accumulation of the emerging capitalist mode. However, this was not just a matter of primary accumulation. It has also played a crucial role in the growth of capitalism into imperialism and its continued sustenance. This recognition does not eliminate the primary internal dynamics in the emergence of either capitalism or imperialism in the West, because a mode of production develops only where the conditions for it have taken shape. Neither does it shift the locus of exploitation to exchange relations instead of at the basic level of production. The issue for us is the conditions created and enforced by colonial rule or the conditions sanctioned and imposed by imperialism in the post-colonial period. The continuous expansion of the world market necessitated by the capitalist mode of production in the metropolis demands the development of productive forces in the colonies. But the extent of this development depends on the exploitative needs of capital in the centre, which also makes subordination of the peripheries a must and also determines its nature. This is no doubt influenced and shaped by a number of other factors including class struggle and contradictions among world powers. But the element of oppression and disarticulation, which also contains the sustenance of semi-feudalism, is a constant. These conditions ruled out, and still rule out, the development of capitalism in these along the trajectory projected by Marx.

This takes us beyond Marx’s articles on British India and brings us to re-examining and developing the commonly accepted Leninist theory of imperialism. It is generally understood that the retrogressive role of colonialism was mainly a product of the shift of capitalism from progressive free trade to a reactionary monopoly phase. This does not accord with historical facts. The disarticulation of colonial economies and regeneration of feudal relations took place right from the very beginning of colonial rule, during the phase of competitive capitalism. It was forever a part of its transformative role. Therefore what is needed is a synthesis, with Lenin’s theory of imperialism at its core, but critically ingesting the views of Rosa Luxembourg and of the world system school who have tried to address and situate the sustained role of the colonial exploitative relation in the capitalist system. Such a synthesis must also necessarily include Mao Tsetung’s contributions, because they shed light on the particularities of capitalism promoted under the colonial relation, or at present under the form of neo colonialism.

Sadly enough, the thesis sought to be advanced, explicitly by Prabhat Patnaik and implicitly by Irfan Habib, is nowhere near this. Standing as they do on a political position that denies the colonial relation (the continued imperialist domination and control) shackling countries like India, Patnaik’s argument about “…the preservation of a subjugated and degraded pre-capitalist or semi-capitalist sector, constituting the (necessary) environment within which the capitalist sector functions…”[24] falls lame. It amounts to nothing more than smuggling in elements of the world system school’s argument in order to square the all too visible signs of imperialist domination and servility of the ruling classes (including among those they consider as communists) with their political positions on an ‘independent’ India and an ‘independent’ big bourgeoisie. There could of course be another take of this thesis whereby big industry in India is identified as the ‘capitalist sector’. But this would only mean a shifting of the problem and miserably fail to address the nature of India’s relation to the imperialist centres.

To come back to Marx’s writings, the ‘Introduction’ of Irfan Habib and ‘Appreciation’ of Prabhat Patnaik are good lessons in how not to read Marx. Their concern to defend Marx is defeated by the glossing over of errors in recording history as well as in judgement. It is also marked by what can politely be put as convenient reading. Thus Irfan Habib declares that “Marx’s thesis of the union of agriculture and craft … and an immutable division of labour … as the twin pillars of the village economy, remains of lasting value.”[25] What Marx wrote about is the combination of two circumstances bringing about a particular type of social system, the ‘so called village system’. These were the central despotic state charged with taking care of public works like irrigation and the dispersed existence of the populace agglomerated in small centres by the domestic union of agricultural and manufacturing pursuits.[26] This was supposed to be the characteristics of the Asiatic mode of production. If the mode as such is abandoned and the erroneous characterisation of the role of the central state is corrected, what really remains of ‘lasting value’? The domestic union of agriculture and manufacture was something commonly seen in all medieval societies, East or West. What is unique is the ‘hereditary division of labour’, caste. It is to Marx’s lasting credit that he drew attention to this feature and projected it as the decisive impediment to ‘Indian progress and Indian power’. How far has this insight, this truly unique feature, been taken up? How do we explain the hard fact that despite Marx’s acknowledging caste as a ‘division of labour’, Ambedkar’s insight on caste as also a ‘division of labourers’ and Kosambi’s pioneering work on the role of the caste order in the incorporation of tribal societies into feudalism, the tradition in Indian Marxist thought and political practice has been to see it as a matter of the superstructure? How far can all these questions be addressed by those who declare that the Indian working class has more or less dissolved caste, even when all facts of their life point to the opposite?

Despite all the limitations and even errors in Marx’s writings what stands out is his effort to apply materialism in the study of the history and society of the Indian sub-continent, paying keen attention to what he then knew as its particularities. It is this approach that needs to be distilled out and applied in our historical studies. And it should be tempered with Kosambi’s observation, “India is not a mathematical point but a very large country, a sub-continent with the utmost diversity of natural environment, language, historical course of development. Neither in the means of production nor in the stages of social development was there overall homogeneity in the oldest times. Centuries must be allowed to pass before comparable stages of productive and social relationships may be established between the Indus valley, Bengal and Malabar. Even then important differences remain which makes periodisation for India as a whole almost impossible, except with the broadest margins.”[27]


  1. Karl Marx on India (KMI), ed. Iqbal Hussein, Introduction –Irfan Habib, Aligarh Historians Society with Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2006.
  2. ‘The Future Results of The British Rule in India ’, from ‘The First War of Independence’ (FWI), Progress Publishers, Moscow , 1978, page 30.
  3. ‘The British Rule in India ’, FWI, page 14. Emphasis added.
  4. Ibid, page 18.
  5. “It [the labour process] is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence.” quoted in ‘Marx’s Ecology – Materialism and Nature’, James Bellamy Foster, Cornerstone Publications, Kharagpur, 2001, page 157.
  6. ‘The British Rule in India ’, page 15.
  7. ‘Appreciation: The Other Marx’, Prabhat Patnaik, KMI, page lv.
  8. Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings’ (CMIW), D.D. Kosambi, ed. Brajadadulal Chattopadhyaya, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002, page 298; ‘Capital and Labour Redfined – India and the Third World’, Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2002, page 143.
  9. ‘The British Rule in India ’, page 17.
  10. Kosambi, page 308.
  11. Ibid, page 309.
  12. This actually contradicts Kosambi’s’s own acknowledgement of caste as a means of control over the exploited.
  13. ‘Capital’, Karl Marx, Volume 1, Progress Publishers, Moscow , 1974, page 703. Marx points to the employment of the power of the state in the colonial system, “…to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of the transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition.”
  14. ‘ India –Changing Economic Structure in the Sixteenth-Eighteenth Centuries, Outline History of Crafts and Trade’, Alexander I. Tchithcerov, Manohar Publishers, New Delhi , 1998, pages 53,63-64, 74, 104 and 136.
  15. Bagchi, page 143
  16. Colonial Theses, 6th Congress Report of the Communist International.
  17. ‘Introduction: Marx’s Perception of India’, Irfan Habib, KMI, page li.
  18. ‘The East Indai Company – Its History and Results’, Karl Marx, FWI, page 27.
  19. Patnaik, page lviii.
  20. “… the formation of the Indian National Congress, from which event the formal history of the Indian national movement begins.”, “… followed till the finale of 1947 contained much that should have gratified him, for it was all according to the perspective he had outlined in 1853.”, Habib, page lii.
  21. “This was confident prophecy; the Indian working class has largely fulfilled it…”, ibid, page lii.
  22. Ibid, page lii.
  23. ‘Capital’, Volume 3, Progress Publishers, Moscow , 1974, page 333.
  24. Patnaik, page lxiii.
  25. Habib, page xxxv.
  26. ‘British Rule in India ’, page 16.
  27. Kosambi, page 50.