Book Review: ‘Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization’

Marx on Colonialism

‘Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization’, by Shlomo Avineri. Doubleday, New York. 19s.

In recent years there has been a steady flow of English language re-issues of and commentaries on the works of Marx and Engels. This new work, edited by Shlomo Avineri, Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, covers a range not attempted before in a single volume. About 400 pages consist of articles by Marx (including some written by Engels at Marx’s request) on China, India, the Middle East and North Africa, preceded by excerpts from The Poverty of Philosophy, the Communist Manifesto, The Critique of Political Economy, and Capital, and followed by some relevant letters written by Marx and Engels.

Some idea of the wide scope of the articles is indicated by the fact that it takes in the Chinese Opium wars, the Crimean War, Turkey, British rule in India, the Anglo-Persian war of 1857, the Indian Mutiny, French and Spanish colonialism in North Africa, the British intervention in Mexico. (Part only of this range was covered in Marx’s Eastern Question, edited by Eleanor Marx Aveling and Edward Aveling which has just been republished by Frank Cass at £9.90). Most of the articles in this new book were originally published as despatches to the New York Daily Tribune between 1853 and 1862.

The articles were well-informed and hard-hitting and the readers of the New York paper will often have gained a better insight into what was going on than would readers of the English Press or English history books.

Here is the opening paragraph of an article published on March 10, 1862:

    “The Blue Book on the intervention in Mexico, just published, contains the most damning exposure of modern English diplomacy with its hypocritical cant, ferocity against the weak, crawling before the strong, and utter disregard of international law. I must reserve for another letter the task of forwarding, by a minute examination of the despatches exchanged between Downing Street and the British representatives of Mexico, the irrefragable proof that the present imbroglio is of English origin, that England took the initiative in bringing about the intervention, and did so on pretexts too flimsy and self-contradictory to even veil the real but unavowed motives of her proceedings. The infamy of the means employed in starting the intervention is only surpassed by the anile imbecility with which the British government affect to be surprised at and slink out of the execution of the nefarious scheme planned by themselves.”

Marx dealt in several articles with the wars fought to force the Chinese to admit the massive importation of opium, to the profit of respectable English merchants. Marx quoted from an English writer about the harm done to the Chinese.

    “Why, the slave trade was merciful compared with the opium trade. We did not destroy the bodies of the Africans for it was our immediate interest to keep them alive; we did not debase their natures, corrupt their minds, nor destroy their souls. But the opium seller slays the body after he has corrupted, degraded and annihilated the moral being of the unhappy sinners . . .”

If you turn to England in the Nineteenth Century a popular history book by C. W. Oman, Oxford Professor of History, published in 1913, you will find nothing about the opium trade. Instead Oman tells us:

    “The second struggle in which we became involved was a quarrel with China in 1856. The Governor of Canton acting with the usual stupid arrogance and obstinacy of Chinese officials, had seized a vessel flying the English flag, and refused to apologise for his act. This led to an expedition against Canton and ultimately to open war.”

Much has been written of the building of railways and irrigation works in India under British rule, but Marx pointed out that this was a later development only after great harm had been done by the British overlords.

    “An Oriental government never had more than three departments: finance (plunder at home), war (plunder at home and abroad), and public works (provision for reproduction). The British government in India has administered Nos. 1 and 2 in a rather philistine spirit and dropped No. 3 entirely, so that Indian agriculture is being ruined.

    The ruling classes of Great Britain have had, till now, transitory interest in the progress of India. The aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy to plunder it, and the millocracy to undersell it. But now the tables are turned. The millocracy have discovered that the transformation of India into a reproductive country has become of vital importance to them, and that, to that end it is necessary above all, to gift her with the means of irrigation and of internal communication.”

Shlomo Avineri’s Introduction to the book discusses the problem, of which Marx was aware, that “stagnant Asia” did not fit into his European-based conception of evolution through feudalism and capitalism to Socialism: hence Marx’s concentration on the impact of European capitalism on Asian countries rather than on the possibility of their own self-development. However, Avineri does not face up to the fact that capitalism is now established not only in Japan and India but, in its State capitalist variant, in Russia; with China following the Russian road.

He discusses Marx’s view that the total income received by British capitalists from British rule in India was less then than the cost to the British government of the Indian administration, so that in effect colonial rule was no more than an indirect way of subsidising a section of the British propertied class at the expense of the rest. He supports Marx’s view on this as against Lenin’s.

Edgar Hardcastle

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