Marx and Engels opposed colonialist "justice," shown suppressing the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (or "Sepoy Mutiny") in this Punch cartoon
(via The Victorian Web).
selected passages from the works of Marx and Engels,
with our commentary below:
We must not forget that these little communities [the traditional Indian villages, which Marx then thought were being destroyed by imperialism] were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man to be the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Hanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.
England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan [India], was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.
The British Rule in India
New-York Daily Tribune, June 25, 1853
The zemindari and the ryotwari [systems] [two quite different systems of land tenure / tax collection imposed by the British in different parts of India, described by Marx below] were both of them agrarian revolutions, effected by British ukases, and opposed to each other, the one aristocratic, the other democratic; the one a caricature of English landlordism, the other of French peasant-proprietorship; but pernicious, both combining the most contradictory character — both made not for the people, who cultivate the soil, nor for the holder, who owns it, but for the Government that taxes it.
By the zemindari system, the people of the Presidency of Bengal were depossessed at once of their hereditary claims to the soil, in favor of the native tax gatherers called zemindars. By the ryotwari system introduced into the Presidencies of Madras and Bombay, the native nobility, with their territorial claims, merasssis, jagheers, etc., were reduced with the common people to the holding of minute fields, cultivated by themselves in favor of the Collector of the East India Company [British official who acted as the governor, high judge, and chief tax-collector for a region]. But a curious sort of English landlord was the zemindar, receiving only one-tenth of the rent, while he had to make over nine-tenths of it to the Government. A curious sort of French peasant was the ryot, without any permanent title in the soil, and with the taxation changing every year in proportion to his harvest. The original class of zemindars, notwithstanding their unmitigated and uncontrolled rapacity against the depossessed mass of the ex-hereditary landholders, soon melted away under the pressure of the Company, in order to be replaced by mercantile speculators who now hold all the land of Bengal, with exception of the estates returned under the direct management of the Government. These speculators have introduced a variety of the zemindari tenure called patni. Not content to be placed with regard to the British Government in the situation of middlemen, they have created in their turn a class of “hereditary” middlemen called patnidars, who created again their subpatindars, etc., so that a perfect scale of hierarchy of middlemen has sprung up, which presses with its entire weight on the unfortunate cultivator. As to the ryots in Madras and Bombay, the system soon degenerated into one of forced cultivation, and the land lost all its value.
New-York Daily Tribune, August 5, 1853
England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia.
[...] I know that the English millocracy intend to endow India with railways with the exclusive view of extracting at diminished expenses the cotton and other raw materials for their manufactures. But when you have once introduced machinery into the locomotion of a country, which possesses iron and coals, you are unable to withhold it from its fabrication.[...] The railway-system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry. This is the more certain as the Hindus [Indians] are allowed by British authorities themselves to possess particular aptitude for accommodating themselves to entirely new labor, and acquiring the requisite knowledge of machinery.[...] Modern industry, resulting from the railway system, will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labor, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power.
All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and people through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation?
The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus [Indians] themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.
The Future Results of the British Rule in India
New-York Daily Tribune, August 8, 1853
However infamous the conduct of the sepoys [the native Indian troops rising up against colonial rule, who were accused of atrocities], it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England's own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule. To characterize that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed an organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution; and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself.
The Indian Revolt
New-York Daily Tribune, September 16, 1857
We have here given but a brief and mildly-colored chapter from the real history of British rule in India. In view of such facts, dispassionate and thoughtful men may perhaps be led to ask whether a people are not justified in attempting to expel the foreign conquerors who have so abused their subjects. And if the English could do these things in cold blood, is it surprising that the insurgent Hindus [Indians] should be guilty, in the fury of revolt and conflict, of the crimes and cruelties alleged against them?
Investigation of Tortures in India
New-York Daily Tribune, September 17, 1857
By and by there will ooze out other facts able to convince even John Bull [Britain] himself that what he considers a military mutiny is in truth a national revolt.
New-York Daily Tribune, August 14, 1857
[T]he cheapness of the articles produced by machinery, and the improved means of transport and communication furnish the weapons for conquering foreign markets. By ruining handicraft production in other countries, machinery forcibly converts them into fields for the supply of its raw material. In this way East India was compelled to produce cotton, wool, hemp, jute, and indigo for Great Britain. [...]A new and international division of labour, a division suited to the requirements of the chief centres of modern industry springs up, and converts one part of the globe into a chiefly agricultural field of production, for supplying the other part which remains a chiefly industrial field.
Capital, Volume 1
Part IV, Chapter XV: Machinery and Modern Industry, Section 7 (100),
Every time Ireland was just about to develop herself industrially, she was "smashed down" and forced back into a mere "agricultural country."
On the Irish Question
draft conspectus for a report to be made at the December 16, 1867 meeting of the German Workers’ Educational Association in London
Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the "poor whites" to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.
This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.
[...] It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.
Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt in New York
April 9, 1870
In India serious complications, if not a general outbreak, is in store for the British government. What the English take from them 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 gratuitously and annually to send over to England – it amounts to more than the total sum of income of the sixty millions of agricultural and industrial labourers of India! This is a bleeding process, with a vengeance! The famine years are pressing each other and in dimensions till now not yet suspected in Europe! There is an actual conspiracy going on wherein Hindus and Mussulmans co-operate; the British government is aware that something is “brewing,” but this shallow people (I mean the governmental men), stultified by their own parliamentary ways of talking and thinking, do not even desire to see clear, to realise the whole extent of the imminent danger! [...] Tant mieux! [So much the better!]
Marx to Nikolai Danielson in St. Petersburg
February 19, 1881
You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as what the bourgeois think. There is no workers' party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England's monopoly of the world market and the colonies. In my opinion the colonies proper, i.e., the countries occupied by a European population, Canada, the Cape, Australia, will all become independent; on the other hand the countries inhabited by a native population, which are simply subjugated, India, Algiers, the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish possessions, must be taken over for the time being by the [Western] proletariat [after the revolution in the West] and led as rapidly as possible towards independence. How this process will develop is difficult to say. India will perhaps, indeed very probably, produce a revolution, and as the proletariat emancipating itself [in the West] cannot conduct any colonial wars, this would have to be given full scope; it would not pass off without all sorts of destruction, of course, but that sort of thing is inseparable from all revolutions. The same might also take place elsewhere, e.g., in Algiers and Egypt, and would certainly be the best thing for us. We shall have enough to do at home. Once Europe is reorganised, and North America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the semi-civilised countries will follow in their wake of their own accord. Economic needs alone will be responsible for this. But as to what social and political phases these countries will then have to pass through before they likewise arive at socialist organisation, we to-day can only advance rather idle hypotheses, I think. One thing alone is certain: the victorious proletariat can force no blessings of any kind upon any foreign nation without undermining its victory by so doing. Which of course by no means excludes defensive wars of various kinds.
London, September 12, 1882
This letter was first published in 1907 as an appendix to Karl Kautsky's important article "Socialism and Colonial Policy."
"The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked," Marx wrote in 1853. But at that time he and Engels still thought that colonialism in India and other backward countries, despite its rapacity, could serve a progressive purpose by destroying tribal and village-based social forms and building up native productive forces. (Marx did add that the people of India would not actually benefit from "the new elements of society scattered among them" by British capital until they had won political independence from it, or until the British working class took power in the imperial center – a remarkable formulation at a time before the cause of colonial liberation had been taken up by any section of the European workers movement, and also, as Aijaz Ahmad points out, well before any "Indian reformer, from Rammohun to Syed Ahmed Khan to the founders of the Indian National Congress, was to take so clear-cut a position on the issue of Indian independence.")
The logic of Marx's analysis in 1853 – that England has a "double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating" – leads to at least conjunctural political support for imperialism. And, in fact, in 1848 Engels had defended French colonialism in Algeria, in terms that anticipated Marx's in "The British in India":
A year later Engels praised the American annexation of northern Mexico.
But nine years after that Engels would denounce French rule in Algeria. In the late 1850s, Marx and Engels welcomed Chinese resistance to Western imperialism during the Second Opium War and vigorously defended the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (or "Sepoy Mutiny") against colonial rule in India as a "national revolt"; later they championed the cause of Irish independence.
What turned Marx and Engels into determined opponents of colonialism had less to do with its effects in the colonies than those inside the home countries. As Lenin explained, Marx, "having in mind mainly the interests of the proletarian class struggle in the advanced countries, put into the forefront the fundamental principle of internationalism and socialism, viz., that no nation can be free if it oppresses other nations." The exploitation of poor countries maintains the class rule of the exploiters of workers in the advanced countries. In particular, national chauvinism ties workers politically to "their own" bourgeoisie and divides them along national lines, as Marx explained in the letter to Meyer and Vogt excerpted above, where he summarized his arguments from an important circular to the International Workingmen's Association. There he had concluded: "A nation that enslaves others forges its own chains."
"Modern industry," Marx predicted in 1853, "...will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labor, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power." At that time he was still projecting that capitalism in India would take the same course it had in Western Europe. Subsequent experience soon showed him he had been wrong. Imperialism actually brakes and distorts development in its colonies and semi-colonies (and today neo-colonies). Rather than helping to undermine the material basis of ancient remnants like the caste system and extreme forms of women's oppression, it reinforces it. In the mature assessment of Marx and Engels, the full emancipation and development of the colonial world would require the destruction of capitalist imperialism through world socialist revolution. Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky in 1882:
Marx had been wrong in 1853 to expect that imperialism would turn India into a modern, industrialized nation, but he was right even then that this still-unachieved stage of economic development and nothing less would be necessary to finally do away with the caste system.
Outside links below offered for information's sake.
"Marx on India: A Clarification" by Aijaz Ahmad
"Marx on India" (Monthly Review, January 1984) by Suniti Kumar Ghosh
For an article on British colonialism written by revolutionary Indian Marxists in 1941, see The British Conquest of India.
from the Marxists Internet Archive:
– index of articles and letters by Marx and Engels on the East India Company, the Great Rebellion ("Sepoy Mutiny") of 1857, and Indian history and society
– index of articles and letters by Marx and Engels on the British ruling class and colonialism
and see also: