Karl Marx And Nineteenth Century India

Karl Marx, whose interest in India was evident from such writings as the incomplete Notes on Indian History, referred to the British plunder of this resourceful country on many occasions in his Capital, e.g.,

    • “The English cotton machinery produced an acute effect in India. The Governor-General reported in 1834-35 : ‘The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India.’”[1]

At what rate the colonial octopus was sucking India dry will be evident from a comparison between the two halves of the century. Whereas the first fifty years saw seven famines in which about 1.5 million people lost their lives, in the second half there were 28 famines resulting in 28.5 million deaths. Within the second half, again, the first 25 years (i.e., the third quarter of the century) saw 10 famines compared to 18 in the next (i.e., the last quarter)[2]. This inhuman drainage of wealth was denounced with great patriotic feelings by early nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji, a successful businessman and Congress leader whose Poverty and Un-British Rule in India was published in London in 1901, and Justice Ranade. However, this early economic critique of colonialism, progressive as it was for the day, naturally suffered from two basic weaknesses. In the first place, they considered the inhuman plunder of India as something alien to the true nature of the great British (hence the remarkable word “Un-British” in the title of Dadabhai Naoroji’s book) and, secondly, they had no clear idea as to what this devastation will lead to. On both counts, Karl Marx had provided a strikingly deeper assessment half a century ago. Writing in the pages of New York Daily Tribune in early 1850s, he showed that there was nothing Un-British about this plunder, which was a normal rule of British colonialism, indeed of bourgeois colonialism in general; and that this destruction of medieval India was at the same time laying the foundation of a new, capitalist India. He thus noted the twin historical roles of British rule in India — the destructive and the regenerating. Most importantly, whereas the bourgeois illusions about some inherent greatness of the ‘world’s most civilised people’ led men like Naoroji to a course of fervent appeals after appeals to the true self of the magnanimous British, Marx had put forward a radically different revolutionary perspective. For Indians to “reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie”, said Marx, either of two conditions had to be fulfilled : a proletarian revolution in England or the overthrow of British rule by the Indians themselves. Already discernible in this clear contrast between the two seminal projections of the bourgeois and the proletarian viewpoints are the germs of the future conflict between the two major political trends within India’s freedom struggle : one led by Gandhi’s Congress; the other — by the communists. As we shall see subsequently, with the former, even mass struggles were to be conceived of as forms and methods of appealing to the slumbering British conscience; for the latter, even participation in Gandhian programmes would be taken as steps toward organising a popular uprising to overthrow the British yoke. It is in the fitness of things, therefore, that we open the Documents section with extracts from a couple of articles by Marx (Text I-1 and I-2), which also provide the briefest possible insight into an India in transition. Marx had to work with scanty information about India and subsequent research has pointed out certain inaccuracies in some details, but the main propositions of these articles stand basically corroborated by history.[3]

Notes :

    • 1. Capital, Vol. I, Ch. XV, Section 5, Progress Publishers, Moscow.
    • 2. India’s National Movement : A Short Account by Ayodhya Singh, (Calcutta, 1980), p 1.
    • 3. Some years after Marx wrote these lines, it became clear that the railways, which Marx hailed as “the forerunner of modern industry”, was playing that role only in a very restricted sense, because the British chose to import the bulk of railway equipments from England, so that there was little development of ancillary engineering industries in India and also because the railway network, though extensive in size, was designed to serve narrow British commercial and strategic interests — not the interests of a free capitalist development. Marx never had the occasion or opportunity to return to the subject, but this aspect of retarded growth of capitalism in British India did not escape his notice. In a passing yet revealing comment in 1881, he said that the railways proved “useless to the Hindoos”.

Proportionate to the worsening colonial plunder, however, revolts of the people became more and more widespread. The whole of the nineteenth century, particularly its second half, saw numerous peasant and tribal uprisings and revolts by native princes and feudal lords whose estates were usurped by the greedy British. Of these, mention must be made of the rebellions by the Kols and Bhils of Bombay presidency, which raged intermittently through 1818-31, 1839 and 1844-46; the Gond revolt in Orissa in 1846; the great Santhal Hool (Total Attack) of 1855 in Chhotanagpur (Bihar); the Indigo Rebellion of 1859-62 in Bengal; the 1879 peasant revolt in Maharashtra led by Vasudev Balwant Phadke; the Rampa (then in Madras province, now in Andhra) peasant rebellion of 1879-80 and the Ulgulan (Great Tumult) of Birsa Munda in Ranchi (Bihar) in 1889-90. The greatest of them, however, was the national outburst of 1857, which is popularly known as the Sepoy Mutiny and which Marx, again with his profound sense of history, immediately described as the “First Indian war of Independence”. This was indeed the first grave challenge to the British rule. Starting as a revolt by sepoys of Berhampur, Barrackpur (both in West Bengal) and then Meerut (UP), it soon developed into a popular uprising in some parts of the country with the peasantry at its core. It was joined by practically every section of the population, including cheated native rulers like the Rani of Jhansi (now in UP), illtreated zamindars like Kunwar Singh of Bihar, disgruntled Muslim leaders like Maulavi Ahmadullah — men and women who, along with talented commanders like Nana Saheb and Tantia Tope, led the revolt in vast tracts of Northern and Central India. Superior fire power and better organisation finally enabled the British to crush the rebellion by 1859, but not before the thousands who embraced martyrdom gave the arrogant British a shudder in the spine. Their immediate reaction was to transfer the responsibility of governing the country from the hands of the East India Company to Queen Victoria; later they took more profound lessons and sought to forge closer alliance with native princes and feudal heads.

There is an old debate in the communist movement of our country on the assessment of 1857. One opinion, best represented by Rajani Palme Dutt and MN Roy, held that the revolt was “nothing more than the last spasm of dying feudalism” to reestablish itself and therefore “socially a reactionary movement”, although it was revolutionary “in so far as it aimed at the overthrow of foreign domination” (Roy in India in Transition). Countering this view the CPI(ML) sought to prove that the revolt of 1857 was revolutionary because “it was basically a peasant rebellion”, with “peasants in their thousands and tens of thousands” fighting “with arms in hand”[4]. Both the views miss the point that the objective character of the revolt was determined neither by the fact that almost all the heroes and leaders belonged to feudal classes nor by whether the broad peasantry was actively involved, but by the target of the attack. Unlike other revolts of the nineteenth century, that of 1857 was not localised or narrowly sectional in character and objectively it sought to resolve the principal social contradiction (British rule versus all sections of Indians). Thus it symbolised not “the last spasms of dying feudalism” but the birth-pangs of the Indian nation[5]. In this sense it was indeed the first national war of independence and to prove its progressive character one need not overplay the role of the toiling peasantry or underplay the feudal character of the leadership.

Notes :

  • 4. See Liberation, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1968: “A New Assessment of the History of CPI”.
  • 5. This is not to suggest that the rebellion was conducted by an all-India national leadership or that the economic conditions for the emergence of a nation in the Marxist sense of the term were already ripe. What we sought to emphasise here is that politically 1857 signalled the approach of the national movement on an all-India scale and in that sense it heralded the advent of the Indian nation.

The Indian National Congress is born

The spontaneous uprisings and rebellions were propelled by traditional, and in most cases decaying, social forces of old India. So, for all their bravery, these struggles never developed into sustained, organised movements. But the third and fourth quarters of the century saw the emergence of new social forces and the first political formations in India, which assembled members of the enlightened gentry, the rising bourgeoisie and the new intelligentsia. Starting with the British Indian Association of Calcutta and the Bombay Presidency Association established in the 1850s, through a number of organizations like the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha (1870), the Indian Association based in Bengal (1876) and the Madras Mahajan Sabha (1884), the process culminated in the birth of the Indian National Congress (henceforth simply Congress) in 1885. The history of political India, in the modern sense of the term, dates from this event.

The main initiative in founding the Congress came from a retired British bureaucrat, Alan Octavian Hume, with approval from the then Viceroy, Lord Dufferin. To be sure, their motive was to let some steam out of the simmering nationalist cauldron. But the character of a modern political party — if it is really a party and not a sect — is determined not simply by the founder’s fancy but by the actual life and struggle of definite classes that constitute its social base and by the ideology of the class it basically represents. The intentions of Hume and Dufferin are, therefore, at best of secondary import; the historical truth is that the genesis and development of Congress was rooted in definite and long-standing economic, political and cultural processes.

The eco-political foundation for the emergence of the first modern political party in India was laid by a combination of such diverse factors as betterment of transport and communications; the growth, in the 1870s and ’80s, of the Indian textile and other industries and the rise of a tiny but articulate educated middle class. A capitalist class, mercantile in origin and basically comprador in character, came to voice its demands and interests vis-a-vis the British extremely politely yet consistently. For instance, a protracted campaign against reduction of import duties on textile imports, which would seriously hurt the nascent Indian industry, was carried on since 1875. The educated sections began to voice, in the ’60s and ’70s, such demands as the right of Indian judges to try Europeans in criminal cases, the Indianisation of civil services (this demand was intensified after Surendranath Bauerjee was removed from the Indian Civil Services in 1874), freedom of the press (against the Vernacular Press Act, 1878) etc. Some general democratic and patriotic demands like higher expenditure on famine relief, against expansion in Burma and Afghanistan and so on also came up during this period. All these prepared the political ground for the emergence of the first Indian nationalist party.

The cultural prerequisites were, however, developing from an earlier date. As early as in 1828, Raja Rammohan Roy wrote :

    • “I regret to say that the present system of religion is not well calculated to promote their political interest. The distinctions of castes introducing innumerable divisions and subdivisions among them, has entirely deprived them of patriotic feeling, and the multitude of religious rites and ceremonies … have totally disqualified them for undertaking any difficult enterprise. It is, I think, necessary that some changes should take place in their religion at least for the sake of their political advantage and social comfort.”[6]

Note :

  • 6. Life and Letters of Rammohan Roy by Sophia Dobson Collet (Calcutta, 1913), p 124.

Without this attack against Hindu ritualism and casteism, no beginnings could be made in modern politics. Rammohan (known for campaign against the sati and one of the founders of the Brahmo Samaj), Iswarchandra Vidyasagar (known for campaigns against child marriage, for widow re-marriage etc.) and some others heralded what is loosely described as the “Bengal renaissance”. This was a reform movement pertaining to the Hindu society of Bengal that developed not against but in open collaboration with the British rulers. The latter provided financial, legal and other help because unlike earlier conquerors of India they needed certain material as well as super structural changes in the stagnant traditional society so as to bring a degree of compatibility between it and their own bourgeois society. In outlook and often also in class origin the stalwarts of this reform movement belonged to the enlightened gentry; they never concerned themselves with the peasant problem and had a very limited vision of change. It is on these grounds that the CPI(ML) had, two decades ago, condemned the “renaissance” as a British sponsored affair cut off from the broad anti-British movement. Basically this criticism was correct. But the point we missed at the time was that the “renaissance” did pave the way for the subsequent emergence of a socially progressive nationalist intelligentsia and with the next turn of events (particularly the partition of Bengal) the forces generated by it actually graduated into the mainstream of militant nationalism. This happened not because the “renaissance” had the vitality and dynamism necessary for this transition inherent in itself (as the CPI and CPI(M) historians suggest) but under the force of circumstances obtaining in the first few years of the twentieth century.

Apart from Bengal, in other provinces too various social and religious reform movements came up in the second half of the twentieth century such as the Arya Samaj (based in North India and Punjab), the Satya Sodhak Samaj set up in Maharashtra by Jyotiba Phule, a great lower caste crusader against Brahmanism, the Aligarh movement led by Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan and so on. In the last quarter of the century, Vivekananda appeared on the scene with a splendid combination of patriotic pride in the Aryan ancestry and social service with concern for the poor and untouchables at its core — a combination that retained its appeal for the patriotic youth for many decades to come. The reformist movements, in most cases with loyalist overtones, and certain revivalist movements with clearer anti-British sentiments constituted the two poles of a new middle class socio-cultural awakening which, along with the spread of English education, preceded and accompanied the genesis of the Congress. Starting with the Amrita Bazar Patrika (1868), a plethora of broadly nationalist newspapers and periodicals like Tilaks’s Kesari in Marathi and Marhatta in English (1881) came up during the ’70s and ’80s. Apart from Tilak, a number of progressive journalists like GH Deshmukh, who wrote in the Poona daily Pravakar under the penname Lokhitwadi, carried on nationalist propaganda even in the face of severe restrictions (Incidentally, about 1/3 rd of the founders of the Congress were journalists). In literature and arts, a galaxy of poets, novelists, dramatists and theatrical personalities took shape. To name a few, there were Madhusudan Dutt, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (who authored Anandamath in 1882) and Dinabandhu Mitra (whose drama Neel Darpan portrayed the Indigo Rebellion) in Bengali, Bharatendu in Hindi, Sandarm Pillai and Ramalinga Swamy in Tamil etc. made great contributions in developing patriotic feelings.

The economic, political and cultural elements of India as a “nation-in-the-making” (to use a favourite phrase of SN Banerjee and Tilak) were thus taking shape in the second half of the nineteenth century and the Indian National Congress represented this process both in terms of its strong points and basic limitations. Here leadership had to belong to the new elite intelligentsia. They were continually torn asunder between western values and the great Indian nostalgia and between a sense of loyalty and an urge for protest; ideologically most of them represented the enlightened gentry and the flabby yet growing comprador bourgeoisie operating in a peculiar love-hate, dependence-conflict relationship with the colonial masters. It was but natural, therefore, that up to the end of the century the Congress was over-zeaious in proclaiming its ultimate loyalty to the Crown. In subsequent decades it gradually and haltingly grew into a broad-based, multi-class movement through which the big bourgeoisie and big landlords began to stake their claim for economic concessions and a share in political power — and then for full state power; this process we shall take up for discussion in the next parts of the present volume.