Notes on: Avineri's Introduction to Avineri, S. (Ed) (1969) Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization: His Desptaches and Other Writings on China, India, Mexico, the Middle East and Noth Africa. London: Doubleday & Co.Inc

Dave Harris

[NB many of the substantive pieces,including the New York Daily Tribune articles cited are available online from the several Marx online archives, eg]


The general tone is set in the Manifesto on the impact of European capitalist expansion, although it has not discussed historical developments prior to European penetration. However capitalist modes of production embrace the whole world and is an imminent feature and it will of course undermine its own existence. This explains the sarcastic praise of the bourgeoisie, how it creates enormous cities, civilises people and so on. Moral indignation and social critique are combined in historical judgement, rather than some romantic search for preindustrial times, but capitalism is a necessary step.

Capitalist society is universalistic and this explains the expansion in India China and North Africa. What sutured society together and what was destroyed by European expansion? There is a reference in the Manifesto to barbarians, notions of peasantry and the East, and this is 'primitive and certainly unsatisfactory' (4). The 1859 Preface has a more explicit discussion of the non-European world in a short paragraph, but there are again some basic theoretical problems. Marx talks about dialectical tensions inherent in every historical period, how one phase never disappears before all the productive forces have been developed and new higher relations have to wait for the material conditions of their existence. This leads to the broad outline of the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal and the modern bourgeois methods of production. The Manifesto has already discussed ancient, feudal, bourgeois.

The Asiatic is a new one, and so far it is a 'mere geographic designation' (5), seemingly standing apart. Feudalism grows out of ancient slaveholding society, and capitalism from the internal disintegration of feudalism, and socialism likewise, but Asiatic modes of production do not fit, nor does he imply that it is integrated. Instead it is 'an uneasy combination of two sets of disparate elements: a sophisticated, carefully worked out schema describing the historical dynamism of European societies, rather simple mindedly grafted upon a dismissal of all non-European forms of society under the blanket designation of a mere geographic terminology' (5) and it appears static. These difficulties were never properly resolved, and Marx admitted the basic European dimensions of his analysis and its limits.

He does not discuss it in the Critique except by pointing to an analogy between ancient Roman and Teutonic forms of property and Indian village communes. However he had studied economic and social conditions in Asia 'in some detail' (6) ever since Parliamentary debates about the East India Company, and he had written regularly for the New York Daily Tribune. In a letter to Engels June 2 1853, he commented on Bernier's studies of India and went on to say what he thought was unique about social conditions in Asia — '"the absence of private property in land"' (7). After suggestions by  Engels he tried to work out the implications, especially for the British rule in India and how the British failed to provide public works. This is not merely a geographical distinction because there are parallels with Flanders and Italy — somehow civilisation is itself a variable and has not resulted in voluntary organisation in the Orient.

The centralising state power links with a unique structure, the village structure, based on property held in common with villagers and this is the key to 'Oriental despotism' (8). He finds something similar, although not exactly the same in the Chinese land system. In both cases villages are based on 'a peculiar union of agricultural manufacture' which makes each village a self-contained microcosm, inward -looking and therefore 'conservative and stagnant'. This leads to his critical comments on villages in the New York Daily Tribune article. There is no mechanism of social change, with local conflicts resolved only, no possibility of evolving into a higher mode of production, and therefore 'Asian society has no history in the Western sense' (in the second article about British rule in India). Similar views were expressed about China discussing the Taiping Rebellion — unchanging social infrastructure compared with unceasing change in the persons and tribes who occupy it

It is clear that his knowledge of Indian and Chinese history was minimal. His conception of history might be rethought as well. It is startling that he thought Asia had no history because it implies that his philosophy of history 'does not account for the majority of mankind' (11). This was of course shared with many of his contemporaries.
Marx followed Hegel in dismissing the current romantic view of China, for example because it was crucial that men could change their environment, and escape their 'pure natural being'. The Orient, by contrast although in constant conflict, bringing rapid destruction was unhistorical, 'only the repetition of the same majestic ruin' [apparently in Lectures on the Philosophy of History by Hegel].

So Marx saw Oriental society as unchanging and stagnant, but traced this to the Asian unique mode of production based on common property but giving rise to Oriental despotism. Yet he did confront a problem missing in Hegel. For Hegel, there was 'no intrinsic necessity' for the different stages to grow out of each other and succeed each other, so different stages could coexist. This did not fit the dialectical nature of production. Yet the Asiatic mode did not have dialectical elements of internal change  and could not change by its own momentum. Russia was a solvable problem with more detailed and differentiated study, but India and China revealed no internal mechanisms of change.
This produces an internal inconsistency and no way in which Oriental society can evolve towards capitalism and thus the ultimate victory of socialism — except through 'having to endorse European colonial expansion as a brutal but necessary step' (13). This might apply to Africa too. This led to views that were 'painfully embarrassing'. They were largely ignored by Maoists.

The process of industrialisation never just attracts moral commentary about greediness of industrialists, and so the motives behind colonial expansion are not the same as its historical significance — they reveal the cunning of reason for Hegel and Marx. An external agent is needed to overthrow the Asiatic mode of production and 'the agents' own motives and rationalisations are irrelevant' [again the first New York Daily Tribune article is cited — the British 'vile' interests which nevertheless were bringing about history]. Political unity has been imposed, an army has been created and so on. Overall, Marx predicts that the effects will be 'far more profound than anything done by the French Revolution' (16), that there will be more profound effects on the sanctity of private property in Asia from bourgeois civilisation, even though, ironically, the British thought they were just duplicating English concepts of private property, in total unawareness of the consequences.

Europe was also becoming 'dialectically', more dependent on Asia in a burgeoning world community, again reflecting a central theme in Hegel on the master-slave relationship, where independence turns into dependence. In India, according to Marx, the British ruling classes began with an accidental interest in the progress of India and wanted only to plunder it, but now the reproductive capacity of India is of vital importance and they now have to develop it [2nd article]. The same goes for the flow of funds from the metropolis to the colonies and how they are regulated — after the Mutiny, the British had to pay '"high protective duties for securing the monopoly of the Indian market of the Manchester free traders"' [another New York Daily Tribune article, April 30, 1859]. These are classic internal structural tensions.

There is a necessary link between the improvement of conditions of life of the British working class and the standards of living of those in India. Cheap Indian labour means a small sector of the British working class can raise its standards, but there is more at stake than just '"exploitation"'. Analysing the East India Company, Marx says that we have to distinguish between the benefits derived from India by the economy and the society as a whole and specific ones derived by individuals and groups. For the public as a whole, 'the cost of administering India exceeds the income derived from it' (18). — the taxpayer subsidises the East India Company, even after its liquidation. The British economy would be better off without it. The beneficiaries are 'several thousand individuals who are either bondholders of the East India company or are employed in the various branches of British administration', and Marx unravels the net of patronage between the Company and the British Cabinet. India has been a goldmine for them. Thus 'British rule in India was, in effect, an indirect way of taxing the British people for the benefit of their upper classes' (19) and their offspring. This is an 'even more profound indictment of British imperialism in class terms' (19) — Britain as well as India was being exploited.

Thus colonial expansion is integrated into the general critique of capitalism. The necessity of colonialism is different from moral indignation at its horrors. This is a complex attitude, not easily summarised by the 'more simple minded language of political mass organisations' (19), including Marxist parties.

There is a threat to the inner consistency of Marx's 'European oriented philosophy of history'. The only impetus for change must come from outside and that means European bourgeois civilisation, and that in turn means it must be welcomed. Marx thought that India would be completely colonised, while China would remain obstinate and unchanging — in China the British had never launched an onslaught on husbandry and manufacturing industry.

The comparison is also found in Capital III. In India, with village communities, there is more opportunity to exercise direct political and economic power. That form used to exist in China too, but it is not reinforced by direct political power. Maybe Marx saw some genuine virtue in the ancient village communities of China, but Gavin Airey disagrees, and suggests that European powers were lacking. On the contrary, he regrets that village communities will not disappear completely. Where it has happened Revolution is imminent and will be socialist.

The unchanging nature of non-European society is 'a drag on the progress of history and thus a serious threat to socialism' (21). This is why Engels said that after socialism, the party might have to take control of some colonies, but this is not a socialist colonial policy — the intention is to lead these societies towards independence, although it will be difficult.

Marx thought that Asia would eventually develop socialism, although he was reluctant to predict exactly how and what the intervening stages might be, even with the Ottoman Empire, or trying to grasp the impact of Islam.  In some ways Islamic law made communities more dependent on their religious leadership, as they did with Greek Orthodoxy in the Ottoman Empire, but Marx does not specify the forces of change required — there is no tension between the secular and the ecclesiastical authorities.
There is one case where Asia might develop the possibility of internal change, following reports of agrarian unrest in China, where there was a call for distribution of land, and even the abolition of private property. He thought that Chinese socialism might be related to European socialism in a way, but the big factor was 'the cotton ball of the English bourgeois', and European liberalism. The text is ambiguous, and maybe it is just a joke, but perhaps he is predicting Republican revolution in China rather than a communist one.

Marx did see European colonialism as barbarous, although he rejected any romantic images of oriental purity and mocked '"civilisation mongers"' (24). The sheer inhumanity of the British opium trade or the cruelties in India after the Mutiny are clear. But Asian society is criticised as well and there is little worth preserving.
In terms of the Indian mutiny of 1857, for example, the British were condemned as brutal but there was little sympathy for the causes of the Mutiny or disorganised sepoys who headed it. The British were compared favourably to the possible alternative -- Russian domination. He saw no chance of success for the Mutiny although there were of course legitimate complaints by the Indian soldiers — but these were trivial. Nor did he want to see the Mogul Emperor restored. However he did draw broader lessons — that revolutionary movements often began with groups that were actually favoured by the colonialists. He predicted total failure, although he was wrong to predict an early end to the Mutiny and realised there were more deep-seated reasons for it after a speech by Disraeli. Engels addressed some military aspects, especially the disorganisation of the sepoy army.

The Taiping Rebellion was also seen as an example of the disintegration of traditional Chinese society, with the rebels terrorising the population rather than standing for the future, with no positive social aims or historical consciousness. Nor is there any support for other 'partial defensive modernisation' (27) in Asia, in Persia,  put down by an Anglo-Indian force — Engels dismissed the introduction of European military techniques into Persia because it still had a nonwestern structure, it was still a '"barbaric nation"' despite having a modern army. Total modernisation is needed and this cannot be achieved by reform.

There is detailed knowledge and breadth. The understanding, say of Chinese society, may be less profound, probably better in India. Japan hardly figures. Overall, however few contemporary thinkers and theorists grasp the implications so well and had a comparable vision of change. Nevertheless, the ultimate criteria for judging social revolutions and progress are European ones, and there is no search for routes for socialism in non-European societies. He gets closest of all when discussing the Russo – Turkish conflict, but even there only because he thinks a Russian victory will enhance counterrevolution and reaction in Europe.

Nevertheless, he has pointed to state power as an autonomous factor in Asia, oriental despotism, a significant difference with European society, hinting at pluralistic elements in the analysis, and this might even 'explain some of the indistinct crises of Maoist communism'. There is a failure in interpreting Asian history. So there is in other attempts, including some by the Chinese communists themselves, who talked about Chinese feudalism, for example, while Marx talked about the idiocy of village life. Marx was a Europe-oriented thinker, and a thorough rejection of Western values might be needed [he says Toynbee does this]. Nevertheless, Marxism might still turn out to be politically successful, despite having little to do with the basic theoretical issues raised by Marx himself. There may be a dialectical vindication of his philosophy [somethingto do with success in the middle of liberal triumphs]