What the Indian rebels taught Karl Marx

May 9, 2018

The charge that Marxism is Eurocentric erases not only what Marx himself wrote, but the work of other Marxists who debated and developed his ideas, writes Pranav Jani.

THE 200th anniversary of Karl Marx's birthday is a good time for reflections on who Marx was and who he wasn't.

I was first introduced to Marx in a serious way, not just as a punching bag, in 1994 when I was a graduate student. I flipped back and forth about what I thought of him, especially with regard to his writings on racism and colonialism--questions that mattered to me very much even in my pre-activist, pre-socialist days.

Because one thing was clear to me as a person of color from an immigrant community: If Marx had nothing good to say about racism and colonialism, all his alleged radicalism was of little to no use.

In the early part of the year, Marx was a hero to me. A professor introduced me to what Marx had said and written about slavery, colonialism and capitalism. Explicitly describing the barbarism of the slave trade, Marx wrote that the capitalism system was born into the world "dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt."

I learned that Marxists after Marx carried through on opposing racism and colonialism, and that many anti-colonial struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America were led by or linked to Marxist groups of one kind or another.

An 1857 photo of the hanging of two mutineers in Lucknow, India
An 1857 photo of the hanging of two mutineers in Lucknow, India (Felice Beato)

And this wasn't because there were no other ways to fight back, but because Marxism gave radical activists a framework for understanding the reality they already knew: that national oppression, economic exploitation and social oppression were linked.

But by the end of 1994, I was livid: I had read, in another class, Marx's prejudiced, narrow and frankly ignorant articles on India, and felt deeply betrayed.

Regarding the colonial exploitation and oppression of India, Marx wrote in one 1853 article for the New York Daily Tribune: "[W]hatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool in bringing about [a social revolution]."

The explicit conclusion was that while English colonialism may have been "stupid in her manner of enforcing" imperial interests, the empire's actions were ultimately progressive because they broke up the pre-capitalist order in India, allowing capitalism to develop--on the basis of which the struggle for socialism could take place.

Marx, I felt, was just another false god, another fickle ally who was using anti-colonialism as a way to justify a different, European agenda. His true target seemed to be the weakening of the British ruling class, not the liberation of the colonized. What kind of heartless radical would claim that a people's suffering in the present was the key to their liberation in the future?

What you can do

Pranav Jani will be speaking on "Marxism, Colonialism and Revolution" at the Socialism 2018 conference in Chicago on July 5-8.

AFTER READING my scathing paper in response to Marx's 1853 articles on India--I was so raging mad I still remember writing it!--my professor handed me a pamphlet of 40 other articles on India that Marx and Frederick Engels wrote from 1853 to 1859. Not to change my mind, but to make me consider the entire field of study.

In his book Orientalism, the great left-wing author Edward Said accuses Marx of being a Eurocentric, Romantic thinker who sees the destruction of pre-capitalist societies in India as tragically necessary. In much of postcolonial studies, my area of research, Marxism is dismissed as holding onto a mechanistic "mode of production narrative."

But Said's view, as I learned, is based on only four of the earliest articles that Marx and Engels wrote on India in 1853. Most scholarship on colonialism that is critical of Marxism takes no account of the sharp debates and twists and turns among Marxists who came after Marx, as they grappled with the unevenness and complexity of capitalism and oppression, and of resistance to it in various places.

What I discovered as I read the full scope of Marx's articles is a mixed and complicated set of ideas and insights that become sharper and clearer when Marx firmly and decisively took the side of Indians struggling against colonialism in the Revolt of 1857.

Concepts like "Asiatic mode of production" and "oriental despotism," lifted from the writing of Hegel, wither away in the face of a mass rebellion that covered northern and central India and took the British 18 months to subdue.

In defending rebellious Indians and challenging British brutality, Marx stood out in stark opposition to the utterly racist, pro-imperialist garbage being spewed in the British press and by writers like Charles Dickens. That may seem like a low standard, but if Marx is to be blamed for accepting the prejudices of his time--as he undoubtedly did in some cases--he should also be acknowledged for having confronted them, too.

Moreover, as I later wrote in one article:

[A]fter the insurrection and the ranting of the racist, jingoistic British press, [Marx] began to see colonized Indians as agents in their own history, who, as in the classic model of the bourgeois-proletarian relation, needed to struggle against the colonizers to win their liberation.

WHAT I'VE concluded about the Marx's articles on India is that his understanding of the history was flawed, his knowledge was often limited and his ideas reflected certain prejudice and racism of the times.

Yet his political rejection of colonialism and focus on struggle actually led him to support anti-colonial rebellion and challenge Eurocentric narratives of colonialism as progress in his own thought

Thus, in a journalistic article reporting on official evidence of Britain's use of torture to extract taxes from Indian peasants, Marx couldn't hold back an editorial comment: "In view of such facts, dispassionate and thoughtful men might perhaps be led to ask whether people are not justified in attempting to expel the foreign conquerors who have so abused their subjects."

Marx's method and politics--of investigating and questioning assumptions on the basis of experience, particularly the experience of struggle--is central to why I'm a Marxist. Not because Marx got everything right but because the approach of acknowledging struggle from below, learning from it and allowing it to shape and change your understanding helps me as a scholar and as an activist.

Marx is hugely important for understanding capitalism as a system rooted in slavery, colonialism and racism. Marxists have made important contributions to developing that understanding after imperialism took full-fledged form after Marx's death in 1883.

But drawing this out means understanding the errors in his thinking and the changes in Marx's ideas over time. This requires work and study and conversation and debate. The truths of Marxism aren't simply in a book. Marx isn't, and shouldn't be turned into, a prophet. Marxism isn't, and shouldn't be turned into, a dogma.

This kind of secular, critical Marxism means challenging anti-Marxist critics and Stalinist hagiographers alike who want to paint a simplistic, homogenous picture of Marxism--as Eurocentric on the one hand, and a perfect revolutionary doctrine on the other.

And we absolutely must reject any "Marxist" defense of post-independence, capitalist and oppressive states in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the name of anti-imperialism. Our allegiances must always be with the struggle of working classes, the peasants and the poor, not their ruling classes.

As for folks who talk to me and work with me, but are skeptical about Marxism's politics on racism and colonialism, I get it. So please read my work and that of Marxists of color before launching or spreading the easy criticism. We've wrestled with this contention and studied it, and our work as Marxists ought not to be erased.

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