Indian Independence (Part 1) – Marx and Indian history

In this first article Jamil Iqbal outlines a Marxist analysis of how British imperialism, by introducing capitalist methods, broke down the old Asiatic mode of production and with it the old type of social structures. The British capitalists did this simply to facilitate the exploitation of Indian resources and labour, but by so doing also prepared the ground for the modern struggle against British imperialism.

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In the year of the 60th anniversary of India’s independence here is first of a series of articles marking this event.

“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… 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 themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.”

Karl Marx “The Future Results of British Rule in India” New-York Daily Tribune, August 8, 1853

“There is no end to the violence and plunder which is called British rule in India.”

Lenin, “Inflammable material in world politics”, 1908

In order to understand the partition of the sub-continent and the terrible conditions it had to face it is necessary to identify the role of imperialism in India and cover certain historical ground. For our present purpose we are not concerned to follow in any detail the chronicle of British rule in India, which would require a separate volume. We are concerned to bring out some of the decisive forces of development which underlie the present situation and its problem.

The burning question today is the present oppression and the path of liberation. We are only concerned with the past in order to bring to light the dynamic forces which still live in the present. The first to bring this dynamic approach to Indian history, to turn the floodlight of scientific method on to the social driving forces of Indian development both before and after British rule, and lay bare alike the destructive role of British rule in India and its regenerative or revolutionizing significance for the future, was the founder of modern socialism, Karl Marx.

Marx’s well known articles on India, written in a series in 1853, are among the most fertile of his writings, and the starting point of modern thought on the question of imperialism. Marx’s writing show the distinctive problems of Asiatic economy, especially in India and China, the effects of the impact of European capitalism upon it, and the conclusion to be drawn for the future development as well as for the emancipation of the Indian people. This close attention is given by some fifty references to India in “Capital”, and the many references in the Marx-Engels correspondence.

Marx’s analysis starts from the characteristics of “Asiatic economy”, which the impact of capitalism for the first time overthrew. “The key to the whole East, is the absence of private property in Land”, wrote Engels to Marx in June 1853. The absence of private property in land is not originally different from the primitive starting-point of European economy; the difference lies in the subsequent development. Why, then did primitive communism in the East not develop to landed property and feudalism, as in the West?


Engels suggests that the answer is to be found in the climatic and geographical conditions: “How comes it that the Orientals did not reach to landed property or feudalism? I think the reason lies principally in the climate, combined with the conditions of the soil, especially the great desert stretches which reach from the Sahara right through Arabia, Persia, India and Tartary to the highest Asiatic uplands. Artificial irrigation is here the first condition of cultivation, and this is the concern either of the communes, the Provinces or the Central Government” (Engels, letter to Marx, June 6, 1853).

The conditions of cultivation were not compatible with private property in land, and so arose the typical “Asiatic economy” of the remains of primitive communism in the village system below, and the despotic central government above, in charge of irrigation and public works, alongside war and plunder. The understanding of the village system is thus the key to the understanding of India. The classic description of the village system is contained in “Capital”:

“Those 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…

‘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, & Co, 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, Vol. 1, ch14, sec 4)

This is the traditional Indian economy which was shattered in its foundations by the onset of foreign capitalism, represented by British rule. Herein the British conquest differed from every previous conquest, in that, while the previous foreign conquerors left untouched the economic basis and eventually grew into its structure, the British conquest shattered that basis and remained a foreign force, acting from outside and withdrawing its tribute outside. Herein also the victory of foreign capitalism in India differed from victory of capitalism in Europe, in that the destructive process was not accompanied by any corresponding growth of new forces.

“All the civil wars, invasions, revolutions, conquests, famines, strangely complex, rapid, and destructive as the successive action in Hindostan may appear, did not go deeper than its surface. England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history.” (Marx, “The British Rule in India”, New-York Daily Tribune, June 25, 1853)

Destructive role

Marx traced with careful attention, distinguishing between the earlier period of the monopoly of the East India Company up to 1813, and the later period, after 1813, when the monopoly was broken and the invasion of industrial capitalist manufactures overran India and completed the work. In the earlier period the initial steps of destruction were accomplished:

1) By the East India Company’s colossal direct plunder. The treasures transported from India to England were gained much less by the comparatively insignificant commerce, than by the direct exploitation of that country and by the colossal fortunes extorted and transmitted to England;

2) By the neglect of irrigation and public works, which were now allowed to fall into disrepair;

3) By the introduction of English land system, private property in land, with sale and alienation, and the whole English criminal code;

4) By the direct prohibition or heavy duties on the import of Indian manufactures, first into England, and later also Europe.

All this did not give the final blow. That came with the era of nineteenth century capitalism. It was only after 1813, with the invasion of English industrial manufactures, that the decisive wrecking of the Indian economic structures took place. The effect of this wrecking during the first half of the nineteenth century Marx traced with formidable facts.

Between 1780 and 1850 the total British exports to India rose from £386,152 to £8,024,000; while the cotton manufacture in 1850 for which the Indian market provided one-fourth of the foreign markets, employed one-eighth of the population of Britain and contributed one-twelfth of the whole national revenue.

“From 1818 to 1836 the export of twist from Great Britain to India rose in the proportion of 1 to 5,200. In 1824 the export of British muslins to India hardly amounted to 1,000,000 yards, while in 1837 it surpassed 64,000,000 of yards. But at the same time the population of Dacca decreased from 150,000 inhabitants to 20,000. This decline of Indian towns celebrated for their fabrics was by no means the worst consequence. British steam and science uprooted, over the whole surface of Hindostan, the union between agriculture and manufacturing industry”. (Marx, The British Rule of India-in the New-York Daily Tribune, June 25, 1853)

The handloom and spinning wheel were the pivots of the old Indian society. The village system was based on agricultural union. British capitalism not only destroyed the old manufacturing towns, driving their population to the crowded village, but destroyed the balance of economic life in villages. From this arose the desperate overpressure on agriculture. At the same time the merciless extraction of the maximum revenue from the cultivators, without giving any return for necessary expansion and works prevented agricultural development.

Does Marx shed tears over the fall of the village system and the destruction of the old basis of Indian society? Marx saw the infinite suffering caused by the bourgeois social revolution, as in every country, and all the greater in India on account of its being carried through under such conditions. But he saw also the deeply reactionary character of that village system and the indispensable necessity of its destruction if mankind is to advance. Marx’s words lose none of their force today for those who, in India as in Europe, seek to fight British rule by appealing for the revival of the vanished pre-British India of the spinning wheel and the handloom.

“Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.

“We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man 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 Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow”.

“England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, 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” (Marx, The British Rule in India, New-York Daily Tribune, June 25, 1853).

British Rule in India

England in Marx’s view had a double mission in India. One, destructive, the other regenerating-the annihilation of the old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of western society in Asia. So far the destructive side had been mainly visible; nevertheless the work of regeneration had begun.

Wherein did Marx see the beginning of such regeneration? He gives numerous indications: political unity… more consolidated and extending further than ever it did under the Mogul rule and destined to be strengthened and perpetuated by the electric telegraph; Strengthening of the British military control; free press, introduced for the first time into Asiatic society; the establishment of private property in land – the great desideratum of the Asiatic society; building up, however reluctantly and sparingly, of an educated Indian class imbued with European science; regular and rapid communication with Europe through Steam transport.

More important than all these was the inevitable consequence of industrial capitalist exploitation of India. In order to develop the Indian market, it was essential to secure the transformation of India into a reproductive country – that is the source of raw materials to be exported in order for the imported manufactured goods. This made necessary the development of railways, roads and irrigation. This new phase was only beginning at the time when Marx wrote. From the consequences of this new development Marx made the prophecy which is the most famous of his declaration on India:

“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. You cannot maintain a net of railways over an immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion, and out of which there must grow the application of machinery to those branches of industry not immediately connected with railways. The railway-system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry… Modern industry, resulting from the railway system, will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power.” (Marx, The Future Results of British Rule in India, New-York Daily Tribune, August 8, 1853).

Does this mean that Marx saw imperialism in India as a progressive force capable of emancipating the Indian people and carrying them forward along the path of social progress? On the contrary. He made clear that imperialism was laying down the material conditions for new advance. But that new advance could only be realised by the Indian people themselves on conditions that they won liberation from imperialist rule, either by their own successful revolt, or by the victory of the industrial working class in Britain, carrying with it the liberation of the Indian people. Until then, all material achievements of imperialism in India could bring no benefit or improvement of conditions to the Indian people.

Marx’s analysis of the Indian situation up to the middle of the nineteenth century turns on three factors:

1) The destructive role of British rule in India, uprooting the old society;

2) The regenerative role of British rule in India in the period of free-trade capitalism, laying down the material premises for the future new society

3) The consequent practical conclusion of the necessity of a political transformation whereby the Indian people should free themselves from imperialist rule in order to build the new society.

Today imperialism all over the world has outlived its objectively progressive role, corresponding to the role of capitalism, and has become the most powerful reactionary force in the Indian sub-continent, strengthening all the other forms of Indian reaction. The stage has thus been reached when the task of the political transformation indicated by Marx is directly on the order of the day.

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