Marx’s Letters on India: The Intersection of Historicism and Orientalism


Karl Marx
Karl Marx


11-05-2009 Monday
History 103

Marx’s Letters on India: Privileging British Agency

While making the British the sole actors in the historical project of politicizing the proletarian class of India, Karl Marx also eliminates the possibility of choice.  The British are to be “the unconscious tools of history.”1  The question then concerns whether the British have any agency if regardless of their actions, the historical project will be carried out in India; British colonial involvement in India would serve as a catalyst for socio-economic change.  Adding another variable- that of the Indian peoples- British agency is clearly privileged.  While the nascent proletarian class of India is the product of this global project, Marx’s focus is actually the British militia.  Writing these letters from London, Marx depended on media reports and military dispatches to formulate the situation in India.  He also employs some of the tropes of Orientalism to construct India’s history (or lack thereof) and people.  The necessity of differentiating the ‘Occidental’ power (Britain) from ‘Oriental’ India is quite apparent when reports of brutalities and massacres at the hands of British forces break out.  The result is Marx’s criticism of Britain’s conduct in India.

Historicism and Orientalism

Embedded in Karl Marx’s works also is the assumption that social development is “caused by characteristics internal to society.”2  Central to Marx’s ideas of global social progress is a belief in the unitary essence of human nature.3  Logically, it follows that the essence of nations and civilizations is unitary also.  Karl Marx assumed this, thus enabling and legitimizing the assumed universality of his models of progress.  This assumption betrays the privilege espoused by Western thinkers like Marx.  The assumption of universality also entails a certain entitlement, an presumption that those perceived as lagging behind European (Western) progress must be made to change.  British imperialism in India would bring modernity, destroying the past traditions, making the “sensuous… dehumanizing worship” of the Hindus a thing of the past.  Modernity would bring technology, secularism, and the awareness necessary for the formation and politicization of a proletarian class.  The British will have then brought about “the greatest and, to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.”4

Ayaz Achmed argues in his article, Between Orientalism and Historicism, that Orientalism is “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinctness between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’”5  Rather than standing on its own realities and history, the ‘Orient’ stands in comparison, and in contrast to the ‘Occident.  Marx’s Letters on India demonstrate that he employed some of the tropes of Orientalism. When discussing agricultural practices (irrigation), Marx employed the similar refrain, “like all Oriental peoples…” as if this geo- political construct of the Orient assured homogeneity in practice.6  Furthermore, Marx’s description of Hinduism as “a religion of sensualist exuberance and a religion of self- torturing asceticism” raises fundamental questions of difference that are implicit in Orientalism.7

The necessity of differentiating the ‘Occidental’ power (Britain) from ‘Oriental’ India is quite apparent when reports of brutalities and massacres at the hands of British forces break out.  The result is Marx’s criticism of Britain’s conduct.  The crisis is both moral and epistemological; the British cannot fall into the patterns of retaliatory and indiscriminate killings, losing their moral leverage.  Nor can the British occupy the same epistemological sphere as the Indians.  If the British soldiers did engage in brutal and unnecessarily forceful violence, what separates them from the “Asiatic princes” who lived in “blessed anarchy?”  For this reason, Marx stated that the British were the “first conquerers superior, and therefore, inaccessible to Hindoo civilization.”  Before the British, there were the “Arabs, Turks, Tartars, Moguls” (all of whom would be classified as ‘Orientals’) who “soon became Hindooized.”  Denying the possibility of reciprocal influence between the British and India, Marx explained this by citing “an eternal law of history,” whereby “the barbarian conquerers” were “conquered themselves by the superior civilization of their subjects.”8

Privileging British Agency

The British possess a certain privileged position because their actions are the ones that warrant the most notice.  By contrast, India is constructed as static and unresisting.  In Marx’s August 8, 1853 letter to the New York Daily Tribune titled “The Future Results of British Rule in India,” Marx contended that:

“Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history.  What we call its history is but the history of the successive intruders who founded their empires on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society.”9

Rather than defending Britain’s right to conquer and colonize India, Marx outlines Britain’s dual mission in India: to annihilate ‘old Asiatic society’ and to lay the tracks of Western society in Asia.   The fulfillment of this dual mission is a thrust to modernity- the laying of a railway system that is expected to “dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour, upon which rest the Indian castes.”  Thus, the necessary process of destroying ‘Asiatic’ society and modes of production would then be carried out, pushing India beyond stagnancy to modernity and preventing the inevitable decline of Indian society.  If Indian society is characterized by a certain laxity, and the “historical development of a society is either evolutionary progress or a gradual decline,” then British colonial intervention is key to preventing the decline of Indian society.10  British rule in India would not only consolidate political unity through force and technology (the railroad and the telegraph), it would also bring with it the free press, a major instrument of the reconstruction of Indian society.

In Marx’s formulation of social progress in India, the regeneration of what has been destroyed is partly a product of the its destruction.  Like a phoenix, after the purging fire, India would ascend above the ashes of its backward past.  The British railway, having made “hereditary divisions of labour” obsolete, would end the fragmented nature of India’s working class and enable the formation of the proletarian classes.  Not surprisingly, the caste system, a form of societal organization, is typified by Marx as a “decisive impediment to Indian progress and Indian power.”11  Ronald Inden asserted in his 1986 article ‘Orientalist Conceptions of India’ that “caste, conceived in this way as India’s essential institution, has been both the cause and effect of India’s low level of political and economic ‘development’ and its repeated failure to prevent its conquest by outsiders.”12  For this same reason, the razing of the caste system was necessary for the modernization of India.

The emphasis on the aggressor, the hegemonic colonizers is similar to Edward Said’s focus on power dynamics and the system of knowledge and discourse that characterized the Orient.13  The disregard for the bottom- up aspect of the insurrection is a rejection of the idea that local populations participated in shaping the knowledge and discourse that governed their laws and actions.  However, the news reports regarding the insurrection undercut Marx’s initial characterization of India as “ unresisting and unchanging society.”14  Karl Marx’s analysis of Indian society is subsequently contradicted when upheaval and insurgency are reported in Delhi.  If a static, unresisting and unchanging society (even a particular subset) launches an offensive against its aggressors, it surely defies its label.  Even in his reports on the Indian insurrection, those joining the rebel troops remain nameless and unnumbered (undoubtedly outnumbering Britain’s on- ground troops)- but rhetorically minor in comparison to those 12,000 men under General Barnard (at least the 5,000 “faithful” natives who comprise the British forces are mentioned).15

In his September 18, 1857 letter to the New York Daily Tribune, entitled “The Indian Revolt,” Marx prefaces the article, castigating the Indian sepoys’ violence as “appalling, hideous, ineffable.”16  Excluding the possibility of legitimate self-defense, he asserts that “it is only the reflex, in concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in the Eastern Empire,”  citing the “rule of historical retribution.”  Again stripping the Indian sepoys of agency, Marx attributes their actions (which he had previously deemed impossible) to the laws of history.  He goes on to note that English soldiers “committed abominations for the mere fun of it,”  Recording a litany of misdeeds, Karl Marx remarked that officers’ logs are “redolent with malignity.”  In another, an officer in the civil service noted that “We have the power of life and death in our hands and we assure you we spare not.”17  In their own records, soldiers reported the rapes and murders of Indian women and children, and “the roasting of entire villages,” which were “mere wanton sports.”  Another report, alluding to the hanging of a large group of indigenous Indians wrote “then our fun commenced.”18  With a modicum of irony, Marx remarked that despite this, “the outrages of the natives, shocking as they are, are still deliberately exaggerated.”19  While lending some credence to this, he supposed it natural that Indian sepoys inflict torture upon their enemies, as they are mired in the Hindu “art of self-torturing.”  British violence, for Marx, was a matter or moral outrage, while the violent acts of the Indians were considered a natural extension of their social and religious conditioning.

Karl Marx’s article in the New York Daily Tribune, published April 5, 1858 acknowledged further the failings of the British in India.  “British Atrocities in India” acceded to the fact that the reports of the murders of the wives and children of various English officers were fabricated lies intended to stir up hatred against Indian rebels.  Instead, in most cases, women and children were spared, protected and returned safely to the posts and garrisons by the sepoys.  Beginning the article with the inference that if the sepoy rebellion in India was a reaction to the British presence, Marx poses the possibility that their British oppressors (clergymen, soldiers, officials) have failed to live up to the Christian, civilized natures ascribed to them.  As he put it, they have displayed “the dark side of human nature.”20

In all of this, India is constructed relative to Britain; the (reported) Indian sepoys’ insurrection is merely an extension of brutalities wrought against them by British colonial personnel.  Moreover, India is represented as a contrast to the modern civilization espoused by England.  India’s cultural and traditional practices are cast as pre-modern, relics of the past that must be destroyed to lay the foundation for modernity.  In ‘The British Rule in India,’ published in the New York Daily Tribune, Karl Marx contends that “England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing.”21  The presence of the British constitutes a “loss of this old world” by which Hindostan is separated “from all its ancient traditions and from the whole of its past history.”22  He further legitimates the modernizing presence of the British by pointing to the village community, representing it as an “unresisting tool of superstition,” enslaving the villagers to the traditional rules, and subjecting them to the “barbarian egotism” that facilitated the ruins of previous empires.23  This “solid foundation of Oriental despotism” subjected the Indian masses to an “undignified, stagnatory and vegetative life,” marred further by distinctions of class and caste, and the bowing down of man (“nature’s sovereign”) in “a brutalizing worship of nature” before Hanuman (a Hindu deity in the form of a monkey) and Sabbala (a Hindu deity in the form of a cow).  It would be amiss to fail to note that there are other religions in India, including Jainism, Buddhism, Islam and Sikhism.  Of course, as a Western thinker writing from London, Marx did not have access to the sources which would have imparted him this sort of objectivity and knowledge.  The National Museum and the University libraries undoubtedly contained valuable resources, but the validity and objectivity of these materials is seriously undermined in light of pervasive Orientalist thought.

The Intersection of Historicism and Morality

Again, in a curious turn, Marx acknowledges that England’s own presence in India was actuated through the pursuit of selfish gain: “Whatever may have been the crimes of England, she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about the revolution.”24  This could be interpreted as excusing British colonial officials’ misdeeds in India, or even as a way of minimizing their importance.  No matter what England does, the historical mission will be carried on.  The intersection of historicism and morality is partly a negation of choice.  The question then becomes whether the British, in carrying out this modernizing historical project are still acting of their own accord or if some great current of history carries them along regardless.  On one hand, if despite British officers’ utter disregard for the lives of their subjects, the outcome is fixed, what then is the extent of the importance of the actor?  On the other hand, in England’s role as colonial oppressor, they act upon India which has been constructed as unyielding and ahistorical.

Factoring in the people of India, the position that Britain occupies in Marx’s historical project is far more privileged than that of the Indians.  The focus on Britain’s conduct is a hegemonic understanding of the historical project.  Emphasizing the top-down aspect of the colonial project, and ignoring the bottom-up leadership of the Indians who fought back clearly privileges the British oppressor.  Essentially, Indian human agency is displaced by the hegemonic account.  The Indian populace are treated as interchangeable, nameless parts of a malleable and stagnant society that must be molded into the image of modernity to facilitate a proletarian revolution.  In order to break down the barriers of caste, class and unfree labor, they must be oppressed by their English colonizers (never mind that colonization often exacerbated indigenous social stratification).  The people of India are caught up in the currents of history; moreover when any of them attempt to participate (the sepoys in the countryside, and in Delhi), they are relegated to the status of nameless and unnumbered reactionaries.  While the outrages of the British are seen as a deviation for their natures, the outrages of the Indian are considered an extension of their nature.

The Orientalist foundation of Marx’s thought in his letters on India assures that the Indian occupies a subordinate position to the English in the framework of his entire historicist conception of modernization project.  The Indian is constructed in relation to the hegemonic West, always subject, always compared, never standing on his own history.  As a matter of fact, Marx reduced India’s history to the successive conquests of its oppressors for the same reason.  As written before, the hegemonic account displaced Indian human agency.   Karl Marx casts Britain as the actor in his play, and India is acted upon by virtue of its ascribed natures: ahistorical, stagnant, unyielding, and adhering to the premodern traditions upon which ‘Asiatic’ despotism rests.


1 Shlomo Avineri. Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization: His Dispatches and other Wrtings on China, India, Mexico, the Middle East and North Africa. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1968), pp. 188
2 Bryan S. Turner. Marx and the End of Orientalism. pub., Orientalism: A Reader. ed. A.L. Macfie. (Washington Square, New York: New York University Press, 2000). pp. 
3 Ronald Inden. Orientalist Constructions of India. pub., Orientalism: A Reader. ed. A.L. Macfie. (Washington Square, New York: New York University Press, 2000). pp. 277-85
4 ibid. Avineri,  88
5 Ayaz Achmed. Between Orientalism and Historicism. pub. ed. Orientalism: A Reader. ed. A.L. Macfie. (Washington Square, New York: New York University Press, 2000). pp. 277-85
6 “The British Rule in India,” June 25, 1853, pub. ibid. Avineri, pp. 85
7 ibid., Avineri, pp. 83
8 Shlomo Avineri. Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization: His Dispatches and other Wrtings on China, India, Mexico, the Middle East and North Africa. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1968), pp. 126
9 ibid. Avineri, “The Future Results of British Rule in India,” August 8, 1853, pp. 125
10 Bryan S Turner. “Marx and the End of Orientalism.” pub. ibid. Macfie, pp. 117
11 ibid. Avineri, 129
12 Ronald Inden. “Orientalist Constructions of India.” pub. ibid. Macfie, pp. 278
13 Edward Said. Orientalism. (New York: Vintage Books, 1978)
14 ibid. Avineri, 125
15 “The Indian Insurrection.” August 29, 1857. pub. ibid. Avineri, 202
16 “The Indian Revolt.” September 16, 1857. pub. ibid. Avineri, 212
17 ibid. Avineri, 213  
18 ibid., Avineri, 213
19 ibid., Avineri, 214
20 “British Atrocities in India.” April 5, 1858. pub. ibid. Avineri. pp. 264-5
21 ibid. Avineri, pp. 84
22 ibid. Avineri, pp. 84-5
23 ibid. Avineri. pp 89
24 ibid. Avineri. pp 89

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