Karl Marx on India

Edited by Iqbal Husain

Karl Marx’s articles in the New York Daily Tribune constitute a separate genre among his works, being originally published in English and based on events in various countries in the world. There is no doubt that the work Marx undertook for his Tribune articles not only influenced his later theoretical work (one major result being his incorporation of colonialism as a factor in the genesis and expansion of capitalism), but also gave him an opportunity to apply the general principles of his method of historical materialism to the study of complex circumstances prevalent in different parts of the world. The perception of pre-colonial and colonial India that he put forth in the Tribune is a classic product of such application. The sheer boldness of Marx’s explanation of India’s pre-colonial ‘non-history’; the remarkable insight into the nature of colonial rule which made it so different from all previous conquests of the country; the lucidity of the exposition of the dialectics of colonial impact; the passionate sympathy for the suffering of the Indians, and, at the same time, the utterly dispassionate account of the historical course that opened up before the country, entirely independent of the will and consciousness of the colonial rulers themselves; all these combine to make the Tribune set of articles a real classic on Indian history.


Marx on India under the British


This book edited meticulously and with a commendable scholarship by Iqbal Husain and brought out by Tulika Books and the Aligarh Historians Society is a very important addition to the scholarly literature on both Karl Marx's analysis of India and the nature of British imperialism in the 19th Century. At the same time, the book is also accessible to the lay reader who wishes to understand the views of the most significant thinker of the modern era on the specific issue of India under the British rule. The main body of the book contains articles written by Marx in The New York Daily Tribune (NYDT) and a few by Marx's comrade-in-arms Frederick Engels between 1853 and 1862. It also contains excerpts from the letters of Marx and Engels relating to India as well as a very thorough compilation, by Irfan Habib, of references to India in other writings of Marx and Engels. Husain has included in the appendices unsigned articles on India - not conclusively established to be by Marx - published in NYDT between 1853 and 1858. Most importantly, the book includes, besides Husain's useful prefatory note, two outstanding articles, one by the foremost Marxist historian of India, Irfan Habib, and the other by the foremost Marxist economist of India, Prabhat Patnaik.

Insightful essays

Marx's articles are a treat to read and enormously insightful. Of the numerous NYDT articles by Marx, two namely 'The British Rule in India' (NYDT, June 25, 1853) and 'The Future Results of British Rule in India' (NYDT, August 8, 1853) have been widely cited, and understandably so. In these essays, Marx provides a brilliant critique of the horrors of British colonial rule in India as well as an incisive analysis, breathtaking for its prescience, of the consequences of British rule, which were to be very different, as Marx correctly pointed out, from the intentions of the colonial masters. These and other essays thoroughly expose the hypocrisy of the 'Free Traders' and bring out the 'happy coexistence' of imperialism and free trade. One finds the letters strikingly relevant for contemporary times, as a critique of present-day neoliberalism as much as of classical liberalism whose attitude on the question of colonial exploitation was typically Janus-faced!


Also to be noted is the dialectical understanding that Marx provides. Thus even while he notes that "England has broken down the entire framework of... Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution, yet appearing. This loss of his world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Indian, and separates India, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history" (NYDT, June 25, 1853), Marx also remarks that British actions in India undertaken with the aim of benefiting British capitalists, would nevertheless lay the basis for far reaching changes. Thus he says: "All that 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 of their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is 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?" (NYDT, August 8, 1853). Completing his argument, Marx adds, "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 Indians themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether." Contrast this incisive analysis of 1853, more than three decades before even a very timid Indian National Congress was born, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's views expressed at Oxford University last year on the benefits of British rule(!).

Marx's perception

Habib in his essay 'Marx's Perception of India' demonstrates both the perspicacity of Marx's analysis of British India and its contemporary relevance, and the fact that Marx was constantly, till the very end of his life, reading up on India, and enriching his views in the light of new knowledge. He also provides a stimulating critique of the notion of the Asiatic mode of production. In his essay 'The Other Marx', Prabhat Patnaik brings out the very important theoretical implications of Marx's articles on India in NYDT, especially for understanding the relationship between capitalism and pre-capitalist modes of production and resolving the debate over the necessity or otherwise of imperialism (in various forms) for sustaining capitalism as an economic system.All in all, this is an exceptionally important book, well worth the time of the interested lay reader as well as the specialist.
– Venkatesh Athreya, The Hindu