The Tool of History

In his essays on India, Marx appears to endorse British rule in India.  He justifies colonialism on the grounds that India has no history, and thus, must be brought into the fold of history by the British.  As Marx claims in “The British Rule in India”, India’s “social condition has remained unaltered since remotest antiquity, until the first decennium of the 19th century.  The hand-loom and the spinning wheel, producing their regular myriads of spinners and weavers, were the pivots of the structure of that society” (13).  That is, spinning and weaving have remained the foundations of Indian society since antiquity.  In Marx’s view, only when “the British intruder. . .broke up the Indian hand-loom and destroyed the spinning-wheel”  did India’s social condition change (“British Rule” 14).

However, that is not to say that Marx thinks India has no past—only that it has no history.  For example, in “The Future Results of British Rule in India,” Marx writes, “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” (46).  For Marx, India has no history because its past has only been one of conquest.  With the exception of the British, none of India’s conquerors were able to alter the foundation of Indian society. And since change is the foundation of history, it cannot be said that Indian society has a history.   But if that is so, one might well ask, how were the British able to change Indian society when India’s other conquerors were not? According to Marx, “Arabs, Turks, Tartars, Moguls, who had successfully overrun India, soon became Hindooized, the barbarian conquerors being, by an eternal law of history, conquered themselves by the superior civilization of their subjects.  The British were the first conquerors superior, and therefore, inaccessible to Hindoo civilization” (emphasis in original, “Future Results” 46).  In short, Marx believes that the British were the only conquerors of India able to alter Indian society because their civilization was alone superior to Indian (i.e. Hindu) civilization.  Specifically, the British destroyed Indian civilization “by breaking up the native communities, by uprooting the native industry, and by leveling all that was great and elevated in the native society” (“Future Results” 46-47).  So, the British succeeded where India’s previous conquerors had failed: they changed the village and village life—the basic units of Indian society.

Still, we might ask ourselves, if “the historic pages of [British] rule in India report hardly anything beyond that destruction” (“Future Results” 47), why would Marx endorse British rule in India? In short, Marx sees the destruction of Indian society as a necessary evil.  More specifically, “English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia” (“British Rule” 16).  As Marx sees it, then, the destruction of Indian society was a necessary evil because it caused a social revolution, and thus, brought India into the fold of history.  In other words, by bringing India into history, Marx believes that British rule in India is a necessary despotism (as opposed to the Oriental despotism of India’s former conquerors).

In conclusion, Marx has no illusions about the intentions of the British in India.  As he claims, “England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them.  But that is not the question,” Marx reminds the reader. “The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about the revolution” (“British Rule” 16-17).  For Marx, the destiny in question here is history as mapped by Western Europe.  For India to follow successfully in the path of Europe, she needs a social revolution.  And since British rule in India brought about India’s only ever social revolution, Marx believes colonialism is necessary for India to fulfill the destiny of all nations and peoples: to follow in the footsteps of Western Europe.

Works Cited

Marx, Karl. “The British Rule in India.” In Karl Marx on India, 3rd ed., edited by Iqbal Husain, 11-17 (New Delhi: Tulika Books/Aligarh Historians Society, 2008).

Marx, Karl. “The Future Results of British Rule in India.” In Karl Marx on India, 3rd ed., edited by Iqbal Husain, 46-51 (New Delhi: Tulika Books/Aligarh Historians Society, 2008).


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