Aijaz Ahmad on Marx's India articles

Aijaz Ahmad's "In Theory: Classes, Nations and Literatures" contains an article titled "Marx on India: a Clarification," which serves as a reply to Edward Said, who viewed Marx's early India articles as Orientalist. Ahmad's main goal is to show the context in which Marx's incidental journalistic pieces on India appear. This is totally missing in Said's treatment of the subject. Said quotes the famous paragraph from an June 10, 1853 Tribune piece that described Indian village life as superstition-ridden and stagnant. The model that Marx had in mind when writing this article was North America. Marx was entertaining the possibility of capitalist economic development within a colonial setting around this time. (Ahmad reminds us that the gap in material prosperity between India and England in 1835 was far narrower than it was in 1947.)

Part of the problem was that Marx simply lacked sufficient information about India to develop a real theory. His remarks have the character of conjecture, not the sort of deeply elaborated dialectical thought that is found in Capital. And so what happens is that enemies of Marxism seize upon these underdeveloped remarks to indict Marxism itself.

Ahmad notes that Marx had exhibited very little interest in India prior to 1853, when the first of the Tribune articles were written. It was the presentation of the East India Company's application for charter renewal to Parliament that gave him the idea of writing about India at all. To prepare for the articles, he read the Parliamentary records and Bernier's "Travels". (Bernier was a 17th century writer and medicine man.) So it is fair to say that Marx's views on India were shaped by the overall prejudice prevailing in India at the time. More to the point is that Marx had not even drafted the Grundrisse at this point and Capital was years away. So critics of Marx's writings on India are singling out works that are not even reflective of the fully developed critic of capitalism.

Despite this, Marx was sufficiently aware of the nature of dual nature of the capitalist system to entertain the possibility that rapid capitalist development in India could eliminate backward economic relations and lead to future emancipation. His enthusiasm for English colonialism is related to his understanding of the need for capitalist transformation of all precapitalist social formations. His animosity towards feudal social relations is well known. He regards them as antiquated and a block on future progress. The means by which they are abolished are universally cruel and inhumane such as the Enclosure Acts. What he is looking for in this process is not a way of judging human agencies on a moral basis, but what the dynamics of this process can lead to. That goal is socialism and the sole measure of every preceding historical development.

A few weeks later, on July 22nd, Marx wrote another article that had some more rude things to say about India and England as well. But here he was much more specific about the goal in question. He says that the English colonists will not emancipate the Indian masses. That is up to them to do. Specifically, Marx writes, "The Indian will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the new ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether."

So unless there is social revolution, the English presence in India brings no particular advantage. More to the point, it will bring tremendous suffering.

Furthermore, there is evidence that Marx was becoming much more sensitive to the imperialist system itself late in life. He wrote a letter to Danielson in 1881 that basically described the sort of pillage that the socialists of Lenin's generation were sensitive to:

"In India serious complications, if not a general outbreak, are in store for the British government. What the British take from them annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless for the Hindoos, pensions for the military and civil servicemen, 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 commodities that Indians have to gratuitously and annually send over to England -- it amounts to more than the total sum of the income of the 60 million of agricultural and industrial laborers of India. This is a bleeding process with a vengeance."

A bleeding process with a vengeance? Make no mistake about this. Marx did not view England as on a civilizing mission.