Three things Karl Marx got mostly right
In the course of doing two degrees in economics I was taught to regard Karl Marx as, in the words of the Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson, a ‘minor post-Ricardian’. His labour theory of value was rejected by my teachers; and his predictions about the immiserization of the proletariat and the imminent death of capitalism appeared to have been falsified. However, I then went on to study sociology and history, where I was obliged to take Marx seriously. For, in these domains, his ideas and insights proved to be of more enduring value.
This fortnight we mark the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth. What remains of relevance in his thought? I would like to single out three ideas in particular. ‘The history of all hitherto existing society’, wrote Marx and Engels in their Communist Manifesto, ‘is the history of class struggles’. This is a simplification; for sometimes caste and religion serve as more important markers of social identity than class. But the basic premise is accurate; namely, that social conflict is a major motive force in human history. Shared interests and identities bring different individuals together on a common platform, to struggle against groups composed of individuals whose identities are or seem to be different from theirs. Hence the struggles of workers vs capitalists, Dalits vs Suvarnas, and peasants vs landlords, which have all been such a visible feature of life in modern India.
Second, Marx may have been the first major thinker who focused on the vital importance of technology in shaping social life. As he put it in The Poverty of Philosophy: ‘Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.’
Marx keenly appreciated what the more conservative thinkers of his time didn’t: namely, that the introduction of a new technology can profoundly alter how humans relate to one another. He would not have been surprised that, first, the personal computer, and second, the personal cell phone, have so radically reshaped individual and social behaviour in the 21st century.
These two insights of Marx are, of course, generic, relevant to humans wherever they live. The third insight relates specifically to India. While Marx never visited the subcontinent, in a series of articles published in the New York Daily Tribune in 1853 he commented on its past and its future. Here, he was unsparing in his criticisms of the rule of the East India Company. ‘There cannot’, he wrote, ‘remain any doubt 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’.
In these newspaper articles, Marx accused the British of plundering India’s resources through war and profiteering. Because the colonialists had ‘neglected entirely’ public works, they had caused the deterioration of Indian agriculture. Further, the British destroyed our vibrant craft traditions, and disorganised our village communities. They introduced a stifling, soul-destroying bureaucracy, which served to ‘paralyse its [India’s] administration and perpetuate its abuses as the vital condition of their own perpetuation’.
Marx was clear that the ruling classes of Britain saw the people and territory of India only as a vehicle to enrich themselves. As he put it: ‘The aristocracy wanted to conquer it [India], the moneyocracy to plunder it, and the millocracy to undersell it’.
The moralist in Marx was appalled at the amoral behaviour of the British in India. Yet the historian in Marx saw some positive (if inadvertent) consequences of alien rule. As he wrote: ‘England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. 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 that revolution’.
Some romantic nationalists have recently advanced the argument that India could have become a modern democratic republic under the auspices of Maratha or Mughal rule. This is pure poppycock. Indian society was riven by caste and gender hierarchies, these thoroughly encoded in religious scripture as well as deeply embedded in social practice. Individual rights and freedoms were savagely suppressed by upper-caste men. The ruler was the monarch of all he surveyed.
It was the brutal fact of British conquest that provoked thinking, reflective, Indians to demand equal rights for women and Dalits, and to seek to replace absolutist and authoritarian forms of government with modern democracy. Challenged by the conquerors, reformers such as Rammohan Roy, Jotiba and Savitri Phule, Tarabai Shinde and Gopal Krishna Gokhale helped prepare India for the challenges of the modern world. These great 19th century thinkers were followed by Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Periyar, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and others, who in their different but complementary ways brought us a Constitution for which nothing in our tradition or heritage had remotely prepared us.
In this respect Karl Marx was absolutely right; the British conquered India with the vilest motives, but they were yet an unconscious tool of history, in that they compelled the best (and bravest) Indians to look into the mirror, to examine what was flawed in their society and their politics, and to work strenuously to correct this.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India
The views expressed are personal