On May Day: Karl Marx on India, colonialism and religion
Marx, argues the author, is often misunderstood and even more often, misrepresented even as the world observes his bicentenary
Both apologists and opponents of colonialism have argued that Marx had seen British colonialism as a progressive intervention of history in a stagnant and backward India. There can perhaps be a no bigger misreading and misrepresentation of Marx’s views about India.
Marx was very clear that capital did not operate only in the apparently legally regulated environment of capitalist countries; he was very much alive to the reality of colonial plunder and violent accumulation of capital from across the world, which in fact had created the conditions for capitalism to emerge.
He was keenly aware that “If money comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (Capital, Volume one, Chapter 31: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist).
In the specific context of India, Marx was a trenchant critic of the barbarity of British colonial rule, its loot and torture, clearly acknowledging that “the misery inflicted by the British on Hindustan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindustan had to suffer before…The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked” – Marx wrote this in June 1853 in his dispatch The British Rule in India for the New York Herald Tribune.
At the same time, for Marx, the village communities in India were no idyllic islands of peace and prosperity, rather they were contaminated by the distinctions of “caste and slavery”, and castes were “decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power”.
He was clear that “All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people,” and he wrote this in July 1853 when the British rulers were claiming credit for the launch of the railways in India as a revolutionary development.
In the specific context of India, Marx was a trenchant critic of the barbarity of British colonial rule, its loot and torture, clearly acknowledging that “the misery inflicted by the British on Hindustan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindustan had to suffer before…The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked” – Marx wrote this in June 1853 in his dispatch ‘The British Rule in India’ for the New York Herald Tribune
In the same dispatch titled The Future Results of British Rule in India, Marx went on to argue that “The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Indians themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.” Marx thus posits the question of complete Indian independence in July 1853, four years before sections of Indians rose in revolt to wage India’s first war of independence.
It is also often heard that Marx despised religion as ‘opium of the masses’ and called for a ban on all religions. This again is a selective simplification, if not a mischievous misrepresentation, of Marx’s ideas on religion.
“Religion is the heart of a heartless world”
The expression ‘opium of the people’ comes at the end of a paragraph which reads thus: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Marxism has therefore always focused on changing that ‘heartless world’ and its ‘soulless conditions’, and insisted on treating religion as a matter for the individual, strictly separating it from the state and public affairs administered by the state.
As we observe the bicentenary of Marx’s birth, we are being ruled in India by a bunch of the most bigoted and obscurantist rulers who seek to address ideological debates through hate, lies and violence. Only the other day, heady with arrogance following their surprise victory in Tripura, they bulldozed statues of Lenin calling him a foreign icon unrelated to India.
They will say the same thing about Marx. These are the people who invite foreign companies to come and plunder India’s resources, who kowtow to Trump as the supreme ruler of the world and if we go back in history we find their ideological forefathers collaborating all through with the British colonial rulers.
And in order not to be misled by this silly distinction of whether an idea or an intellectual is of Indian origin or foreign, we must always remember that the RSS has always idolised foreign icons. Incidentally, the icon they worshipped was another German called Adolf Hitler. And these people, who oppose Marx and Lenin, also oppose Ambedkar and Periyar.
Clearly, it is not about the origin of the idea, but the idea itself which is the real bone of contention. All who stand and fight for equality and justice, liberty and fraternity will always feel inspired by Marx while the enemies of equality will always remain mortally afraid of this revolutionary giant. More power to the ideas and legacy of Marx!
The author is General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist