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Karl Marx beyond Europe

Originally published: Hood Communist on April 13, 2023 by Tristan Graham (more by Hood Communist)  | (Posted Apr 19, 2023)

Marx’s views on historical development and his analysis of capitalism have been the subject of much debate and criticism over the years. While some critics have accused Marx of imposing a European model of historical development on the rest of the world, it is important to note that Marx himself rejected Eurocentric thinking and developed a more nuanced view of world history.

The question of whether Marx was Eurocentric or not is a complex one that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. While it can be said that some of Marx’s earlier writings, particularly those focused on the development of capitalism in Europe, may have been Eurocentric in nature, it is important to consider the totality of his work across his entire life. Over the course of his career, Marx’s views evolved and became more nuanced, as he engaged with a broader range of issues and examined the ways in which capitalism interacted with different societies and cultures. Marx’s later writings demonstrate a greater awareness of the global dimensions of capitalism and the specificities of non-European societies.

Marx and India

In this passage I aim to highlight the history of the publication of Marx’s articles on India and their influence on the work of R. Palme Dutt. The articles were originally published in the Tribune under Marx’s signature, but they did not become widely known until after the Soviet Revolution, when preparations began to be made for publishing Marx’s Collected Works.

In India, the articles became available for the first time when Mulk Raj Anand edited them as a Socialist Book Club Publication, No. 4, sometime between 1934—1937. In 1940, R. Palme Dutt published the articles with a long introduction and considerable annotation, in a book titled “Marx, Articles on India,” which was first published in London. The first Indian edition of the book was issued from Bombay in 1943.

This information has allowed us to obtain a new perspective on Marx’s attitude to India. The Marx that we are told about from the Tribune articles in 1853 states that in view of Britain’s imposition of modern conditions on India for its own profit, one should overlook its destructive and oppressive conduct. However, the late Tribune articles, which were published during the revolt of 1857, reveal a different side of Marx’s thinking. In these articles, Marx expressed support of the Indian rebels and explicitly hoped for their victory. This suggests that Marx’s views on India were more complex and nuanced than previously thought, and that he was capable of changing his perspective based on new information and events.

After revisiting his previous assertions, Marx encountered in India a social order that was based on neither slavery nor serfdom, but on two institutions: the “village community” and a “despotic” state, which he referred to as “Oriental despotism.” This system did not conform to the classical slave system or the feudal form, which were the only pre-capitalist categories of social orders offered in the Communist Manifesto (1848). As Marx noted in his manuscript notes prepared in 1857—58, which are now known as Grundrisse, the Indian social order was based on a “village community” that did not practice communal cultivation, and a “despotic” state that took in tax what amounted practically to landlord’s rent. Marx later included the “Asiatic” mode of production alongside the ancient, feudal, and capitalist modes of production in the Preface to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).

Marx also used craft production in India as an example to demonstrate how a non-capitalist system could function effectively. He noted that the Dacca weaver could produce the finest muslin by combining his own “inherited” skill with the use of rudimentary tools. In contrast, capitalist manufacture (prior to machinery) involved a more detailed division of labor, leading to more specialized compartmental skills and varied tools.

Marx’s analysis of India in Capital, Vol. I also underscores his belief that the development of capitalism was not the only path to progress and economic growth. He recognized the value of non-capitalist forms of production and their potential to achieve high levels of productivity through the combination of inherited skills and simple tools.

Thus began the first chapter of the history of capital. All these methods for making surplus value (which include the commercial exploitation of colonies, the slave-trade, and piracy, as well as the stealing of church lands, feudal confiscations, and just wars of conquest) were carried out by brutal means. They all, without exception, involved a violent breach with the old economic conditions and were only able to conquer a firm foothold for the capital system by the annihilation of a great mass of the population, by the devastation of an entire continent, and by the ruining of countless individual fortunes.

 — (Capital, Vol. I, Part VIII, chapter XXV)

In other words, Marx argued that the rise of capitalism was not a peaceful and gradual process of economic development, but rather a violent and brutal process of expropriation and exploitation, both within England and through its colonial expansion. The accumulation of wealth that served as the foundation for the growth of capitalism in England was built on the dispossession and destruction of countless lives and livelihoods.

As Marx also puts it:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies [India and East Asia], the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.

It should also be noted that in the 1870s and 1880s, Marx and Engels closely followed the Indian Nationalist movement, particularly the Indian National Congress, and expressed their support for the struggle for Indian independence. In a letter to Friedrich Adolph Sorge in 1886, Marx wrote,

The Indian revolutionaries will find their best allies in the European proletariat. We are convinced that the overthrow of English rule in India would be a lasting gain not only for Asia but for Europe as well.

Marx and China

The Indian finances of the British Government have, in fact, been made to depend not only on the opium trade with China, but on the contraband character of that trade. Were the Chinese Government to legalize the opium trade simultaneously with tolerating the cultivation of the poppy in China, the Anglo-Indian exchequer would experience a serious catastrophe. While openly preaching free trade in poison. it secretly defends the monopoly of its manufacture. Whenever we look closely into the nature of British free trade, monopoly is pretty generally found to lie at the bottom of its “freedom.”

— Karl Marx in The New York Daily Tribune  (1858)

Marx’s condemnation of Britain’s actions during the Second Opium War is an important aspect of his critique of imperialism and colonialism. In his writings on the subject, Marx focused on the violence and brutality of British imperialism, rather than portraying China as “backward” or “uncivilized.”

Britain’s Second Opium War against China — a view expressed here in an 1856 Tribune article:

The unoffending citizens and peaceful tradesmen of Canton have been slaughtered, their habitations battered to the ground, and the claims of humanity violated . . . the Chinese have at least ninety-nine injuries to complain of to one on the part of the English.

Marx and the Iroquois

Many don’t know of the The Ethnological Notebooks written by Marx. These are a collection of Marx’s notes on anthropology and ethnology, which he compiled during the last decade of his life. They were not intended for publication, but were rather a part of Marx’s ongoing research and study. The notebooks were not published in their entirety until 1975, and even then, they were only made available in a limited, expensive edition.

The notes reveal Marx’s interest in the study of non-Western societies and his attempt to integrate this knowledge into his analysis of capitalist society. They also demonstrate his evolving views on historical development, particularly his shift away from a linear, teleological view of history towards a more complex and dialectical understanding.

Despite their fragmentary nature, the Ethnological Notebooks have had a significant impact on subsequent Marxist and anthropological thought. They have inspired a renewed interest in the study of non-Western societies and their potential role in revolutionary struggle, and have helped to redefine Marxist theory in light of the global struggles against colonialism and imperialism.

In these notebooks Marx studied Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society, which dealt with the Iroquois, in 1881, and wrote on ethnology based upon this work and others. His précis of Ancient Society formed the basis of Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. However, Marx died two years later. The short time between his study of Ancient Society and his death, and the sheer weight of his previous ouvrier, suggests that what Ancient Society provided was more in the nature of vindication of previous beliefs, and clarification of the actual history, than a paradigm shift. But he was always revising his conceptualization of communism in the face of new developments.

Marx’s reading of Lewis Henry Morgan’s work had a significant impact on his understanding of pre-capitalist societies and the role of indigenous peoples in revolutionary movements. In Morgan’s work, Marx found a detailed analysis of kinship structures and the social organization of indigenous societies, which allowed him to better understand the diversity of social relations that existed outside of the European context. This helped Marx to develop a more nuanced view of historical development and to recognize the agency of non-European peoples in shaping their own destinies.

Furthermore, Marx’s encounter with the Iroquois and other tribal societies allowed him to see the potential for alternative forms of social organization that existed outside of the dominant capitalist model. He came to see that non-European societies had developed their own unique ways of organizing social relations and production that could serve as a basis for revolutionary transformation. This realization contributed to Marx’s belief in the possibility of a non-Western path to socialism, and his recognition of the need to respect the cultural autonomy of non-European societies.

There are also passages from Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks which show his fascination with the customs, beliefs, and practices of indigenous peoples from around the world. He delves into the minutiae of their daily lives, highlighting their use of materials, techniques of manufacturing, and artistic forms of expression. Marx’s attention to detail reflects his belief in the importance of studying and understanding pre-capitalist societies and their historical development. Carefully, and for one tribe after another, Marx lists each each the animals from which the various clans claim descent. No work of his is so full of such words as wolf, grizzly bear, opossum and turtle (in the pages on Australian aborigines we find emu, kangaroo and bandicoot). Again and again he copies words and names from tribal languages. Intrigued by the manner in which individual (personal) names indicate the gen, he notes these Sauk names from the Eagle gens: “Ka-po-na.

Marx’s interest in the animal totems and clan systems of different tribes also shows his belief in the importance of communal ties and the collective ownership of resources. By noting the personal names and clan affiliations of different individuals, he is able to identify the complex web of social relationships that exist within indigenous societies.

Myth: Marx didn’t forsee a Russian Revolution

As Russian intellectuals were asking themselves if their society was “inevitably” destined to follow the pathway of Western Europe if it were to progress, Marx in 1881 wrote a letter to Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich:

In analyzing the genesis of capitalist production, I say: “At the core of the capitalist system, therefore, lies the complete separation of the producer from the means of production . . . the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of the cultivators. So far, it has been carried out in a radical manner only in England . . . but all the other countries of Western Europe are going through the same development” (Capital, French ed., p. 315). Hence, the “historical inevitability” of this process is expressly limited to the countries of Western Europe.

Marx’s interest in Russia can be traced back to the 1840s when he was writing for the Rheinische Zeitung and published articles on Russia’s politics and society. However, it was in the 1870s and 1880s that he focused on the country’s rural communes, known as mirs, and their potential for revolutionary transformation. He saw the mirs as a form of communal ownership of land and believed that they could provide a starting point for a socialist transformation in Russia.

Marx’s interest in the mirs was part of a broader interest in non-Western societies and their potential for socialist transformation. He saw these societies as having their own internal contradictions and believed that they could develop in their own unique ways, rather than simply imitating Western capitalist development. This was a departure from the Eurocentric views of many of his contemporaries and reflected his belief in the importance of understanding different societies and their historical trajectories.

Marx’s views on the potential for a socialist transformation in Russia were reflected in the preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, which was published in 1882. In this preface, Marx and Engels argued that the Russian Revolution could serve as a signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, and that the common ownership of land in Russia could serve as a starting point for a communist development. However, we know this vision was cut short by Marx’s death in 1883, and it would be left to later revolutionaries to attempt to realize this potential.

If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.

— 1882 edition of the Russian Communist Manifesto

Marx believed that the peasant communes in Russia could provide the basis for a socialist revolution, but he also recognized that this revolution would need to be connected to the wider global system of capitalism in order to succeed. He saw the Russian peasant communes as a potential ally of the working class in Western Europe, and argued that a revolution in Russia could be the starting point for a Europe-wide revolutionary movement. However, he did not advocate for an isolated agrarian socialist society in Russia, as he believed that such a society could not sustain itself without connections to more developed economies. In Marx’s view, a successful communist revolution required both a revolutionary movement in the periphery and in the center of capitalism.


Itfan Habib, introd. to Iqbal Husain (ed.), Karl Marx on India, New Delhi, 2006, pp. xlvii-xlix. All of Marx and Engels’s articles in the Tribune have been collected in Marx and Engels, The First Indian War of Independence, Moscow, 1959 and subsequent eds., already mentioned in our main text.

E. J. Hobsbawm, Introduction to Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Foundations (extracted form GrundrisseTribune, 22 July 1853 (Iqbal Husain, ed., Karl Marx on India, p. 47).

Karl Marx. Ethnological Notebooks. Assen: Van Gorcum, 1972.

Tribune, 10 October 1859 (Iqbal Husain, ed., Karl Marx on India, p. 218).’

Cf. Prabhat Patnaik, ‘Appreciation: The Other Marx’ in Iqbal Husain, ed., Karl Marx on India.

Karl Marx and FriedrichEngels, Correspondence, 1846—1895, Calcutta, 1945, pp. 340—41. The letter was originally written in English.

Morgan Lewis Henry. Ancient Society (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1908); (New York: World, 1963)

Rubel, Maximilien, and Margaret Manale. Marx without Myth: A Chronological Study of His Life and Work. (New York: Harper, 1976)

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