Was Karl Marx `Eurocentric'?

Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies
By Kevin B. Anderson
University of Chicago Press, 2010, 336  pages

By Samir Amin
Monthly Review Press, 1988 (second edition 2009), 288 pages

Reviews by Barry Healy

October 22, 2010 -- In the foundational text of the Marxist movement, the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels paint a vivid word picture of the awesome, world-shaking advance of capitalism.

The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.

This “impulse” created the world market, “for which the discovery of America paved the way”, and which further revolutionised the means of production. Without consideration for human life or suffering, the bourgeoisie created a “world after its own image” in which “even the most barbarian, nations [are drawn] into civilisation”.

Bourgeois economic prowess “batters down all Chinese walls … it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves.”

Barbarian nations becoming civilised? The 1839 British Opium War against China battering down a primitive, pigheaded dislike of outsiders?

Edward Said, author of Oriententalism, pointed to these and other writings of Marx, such as his 1853 article "The British Rule in India" as examples of “the Romantic Orientalist vision”. In fact, Said argued, “in article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution”.

In other words, Marx was as guilty of a nostalgic, dewy-eyed admiration of European triumphalism as, say, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans in which an aged Native American sage opines: “The pale-faces are masters of the earth.”

At the very least, was Marx “problematically unilinear”, as Kevin Anderson puts it, assuming that the history of every country was destined to be force-marched in one direction only, through the Hell of capitalist development into the socialist future?

Not only unilinear, Marx expressed opinions about supposedly peripheral societies being dependent on revolutionary action of workers in the metropolitan centres. In 1847 Marx thought that Poland must be liberated "in England not in Poland" and he considered Ireland to be equally reliant on English workers.

Reading such a catalogue it seems that Marx was guilty of a superiority towards Indians, Irish, black slaves, the Polish and the Chinese and other non-European civilisations. And he seemed to mechanically force all matters of race, ethnicity and nationalism into a one-size-fits-all class-based theory of history.

Both Samir Amin and Anderson produce answers to these challenges, in vastly different manners.

Amin has devised a new scheme of analysing the evolution of world history, criticising certain categories of Marx’s historical materialism.

Anderson, on the other hand defends Marx’s thinking by delving deep into both the published and unpublished archives to bring to light hitherto unknown texts that show that Marx’s ideas evolved markedly over time.

Anderson argues that both the Communist Manifesto and "The British Rule in India" should not be taken as Marx’s last words on the subject.

Amin’s project is quite radical. He takes Marx to task on his use of the term “Oriental Despotism” as a catch-all phrase for non-European, pre-capitalist societies. These societies did not fit within the pattern of European feudalism, displaying their own features.

The conventional Marxist description of history is that humanity passed through a series of pre-capitalist forms: pre-class society, class society, slavery, feudalism and then capitalism.

This is one of the great “intellectual deformations” of our times, says Amin.

`Tributary' societies

Amin’s response is to question the use of the term “feudalism” to describe the European experience; in fact, he questions whether feudalism as a category existed at all. Instead, he uses the expression “tributary societies” to describe all pre-capitalist class societies.

Thus, ancient Rome was one form of tributary society, in which slaves paid tribute in the form of unpaid labour. Middle Ages Europe was just another form, in which peasants paid tribute in the form of levies and service.

Chinese and Arab civilisations were other forms, where highly centralised bureaucracies ruled over rather independent villages extracting tribute in the form of taxes and sometimes communal labour on major works.

The advantage for Amin in this scheme is that he can prove that the Arab, Chinese and other civilisations were more stable than what is commonly referred to as European feudalism. In fact, Amin says, Europe was more tumultuous precisely because it never achieved the higher level of development that the Arabs and the Chinese exhibited.

It was that very instability that drove Europeans out of their continental nest, opening up the world to trade and through that revolutionising their economic system into capitalism.

Thus, Amin turns the tables on European claims to authority, undermining Eurocentrism: it was European backwardness and weakness that created capitalism and global domination, not superiority.

Amin mounts a powerfully argued and passionate case, part of which is a very sophisticated analysis of the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which is welcome because it cuts to the heart of contemporary racism. It allows Amin to sweepingly reinterpret world history and raise the prominence in particular of Islamic civilisation in human advancement.

Far from being the incubator of human civilisation, in Amin’s telling, Europe was a backwater, resting on the periphery of a classical, tributary civilisation centred in the eastern Mediterranean.

Amin has a double purpose: to show how pervasive Eurocentrism is in the construction of the modern world and to chart a revolutionary course out of it. He easily debunks the “genialities” of European history, starting with the “fabrication of Ancient Greece”.

Such a myth is not just “the sum of Western preconceptions, mistakes and blunders with respect to other peoples”, he says, it is a systematic misrepresentation of history.

Amin is no nostalgic idealist about contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, however. He is particularly sharp on condemning it and warns against Western, liberal underestimations of its shortcomings.

Amin opposes Third Worldist mirror images of Eurocentrism, which he rejects as mere provincial reflections of the dominant ideology. Instead, he calls on people in the imperialist periphery to “delink” from imperialism both ideologically and economically, and steer an independent course to liberation.

While hard-headed on Third Worldist pretentions and scathing of Eurocentrism, in calling on revolutionaries to voluntarily create autarky -- maintaining revolutionary purity in splendid, poverty-stricken isolation -- Amin is presenting an unsupportable idealism. Pol Pot organised on exactly that basis.

Flawed `catch-all'

Moreover, the schema upon which he builds his whole argument is fundamentally flawed.

The failings of Amin’s construction of “tributary society” as a catch-all for pre-capitalism are these: if all historical forms of society can be swept together into one basket, then what are the differences in how economic systems and their attendant social forms reproduce, and what contradictions have driven history forward if everything was similar before capitalism?

Indeed, if all the forms of pre-capitalist social evolution and revolution simply produced variations on the theme of tributary society, then what of the Communist Manifesto’s stirring, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”? If no essential difference was ever created before capitalism, has there ever been a revolution in the history of humanity?

Certainly, in pre-capitalist class societies the only source of value (both use value and exchange value) anywhere in the world were peasants and slaves (slaves and peasants even existed in Europe until well into the capitalist era). Does that mean that all those societies were essentially similar?

Roman slave society and its legal forms not only were fundamentally different from the feudal structures that followed them, they replicated themselves (ensured their continuation) in vastly different manners. Rome subsisted for an age on military conquest supplying a stream of slaves for its farms, mines and industries.  Its professional armies existed to perpetually expand and protect the frontiers and facilitate the movement of slaves.

When large-scale slave farm production (latifundia) rotted out the army’s social basis, the independent yeoman farmers, the state turned to hiring mercenaries. The problem was that when the German tribes, trained in Roman military methods as mercenaries, were pushed off their lands by invaders from the east, they swept over the Danube and conquered Rome.

Feudalism, in contrast, subsisted on stasis, the economic and ideological construction of the never-ending bond of the peasant to the land and the hierarchical structures above them. When peasants were drafted into foreign expeditions their pay-off was loot extracted from the lands they passed through and stolen from the bodies of their fallen adversaries.

The unceasing wars between the barons were precisely because land was the only source of wealth. There was no way in which to expand the value extracted from the labouring masses other than by stealing land (and the peasants tied to it).

If, as Amin says, feudalism was essentially the same as, though inferior to, the Arab empires and the Chinese economic system in the fact that “tribute” was the mainstay, then why isn’t modern capitalism similarly “tributary”? Don’t modern workers pay “tribute” in the form of unpaid labour to the boss?

It is a pity that Amin’s book is based on this faulty premise, because in all other ways it is brilliant.

Marx's unpublished notebooks

Kevin Anderson’s survey of a large swathe of Marx’s writings illustrates the evolution of Marx’s thinking and the breadth of vision. This is a major work. Drawing on his access to the Marx and Engels Collected Works (know by the German acronym MEGA) Anderson analyses a wealth of Marx’s unpublished notebooks on ethnographical readings and compares them with the evolution of his published works.

For decades the MEGA was dominated by the Stalinist Soviet Union, and significant writings by Marx were suppressed. Only now is a new generation of translators and editors bringing valuable texts to light (the new projects is delineated as MEGA2 as opposed to the Stalinist MEGA1).

Anderson draws together the hundreds of pages of articles Marx wrote for the New York Tribune, the books published in his lifetime (a minor part of his output), comparing different editions and many fragments and unpublished manuscripts. Luckily, he is not just a diligent academic and translator, he writes in plain-enough English that the common reader can follow and be stimulated.

He details the Communist Manifesto’s “unilinear” concept of social progress and Marx’s 1853 New York Tribune article on India. In "The British Rule in India", Marx spoke of progressive features in British colonialism.

India was caste-ridden, and the failure of the villages to revolt against foreign invasions showed that India had “no history” – no independent force driving its society forward, Marx believed. Importantly, however, Marx described British colonialism as a form of “barbarism”, which was an advance on the language of the Manifesto.

The way forward for India would come from a revolutionary movement of the British workers, Marx wrote, or through the Indians organising their own liberation movement – the first time that a major European thinker supported Indian independence.

Within a few years, by 1856-57, Marx’s anti-colonialism became sharper when, again in the New York Tribune, he supported China against Britain in the Second Opium War and the Indian Sepoy Uprising. Far from passively waiting for liberation by European workers, "India is now our best ally", he wrote.

The more he read about Indian history the more his thinking evolved. His developing thinking was reflected in the Grundrisse, which was not published until well into the 20th century.

The line of historical development in the Grundrisse was very nuanced, detailing the distinctions and similarities between early Roman society and ancient India. He showed how Asian societies had followed their own developmental path, dissimilar to Europe.

Whereas previously he had seen Indian villages as the basis of authoritarianism (oriental despotism), he now saw that they actually formed a spectrum from democratic to tyrannical.

For many years following, Marx turned his attention to writing Capital, but he also looked at the dialectics of class and race during the American Civil War. Marx critically supported Abraham Lincoln and the Union forces, arguing for a revolutionary war to free the slaves.

Analysis of racism's role

Marx articulated many important threads of thinking that have served the socialist movement ever since in the struggle against racism. He propounded that white racism had held back the labour movement as a whole and he believed that slaves and freed slaves should be mobilised in the battle for their freedom.

He worked hard to ensure that Manchester cotton workers held firm to their internationalist support for the Union, which derailed British government support to the Confederacy.

The 1863 Polish uprising also attracted Marx’s attention. Poland and Russia had long occupied Marx's thinking. Russia was the bulwark of reaction in Europe, the very heartland of despotism, the deadly enemy of the European revolution.

Polish national liberation would not come as a consequence of proletarian revolution but was a necessary precondition for it, Marx came to believe. Unless democratic and class struggles could be linked with those of oppressed nationalities, Marx saw, all would be unsuccessful.

The working-class support that rallied to both the Union cause and the 1863 uprising were the twin bases for the foundation of the Working Men’s Association (the First International), of which Marx was a leading figure.

“In this way”, Anderson writes, “Marx’s most sustained involvement with labour during his lifetime occurred under the backdrop of struggles against slavery, racism and national oppression.”

Shortly after its founding the International became embroiled in agitation in support of the insurgent Irish. It was through this work that Marx came to re-analyse his ideas about the liberation of Ireland, which he originally thought could only become independent through a workers’ revolution in Britain. In 1869 correspondence with Engels, however, he said that he had changed his mind: anti-Irish prejudice had so corrupted the English workers' movement that "the lever must be applied in Ireland".

Almost all of these thoughts found their way into Capital as sub-themes. Anderson, in particular, pays attention to the last edition of the book prepared under Marx’s direction, the French translation of 1875, which he completely revised from previous translations.

In direct and clear language Marx now stated that the transition outlined in the part on primitive accumulation applied only to Western Europe.

This completely undermines any “unilinear” interpretation of Marx’s thought.

Between 1879 and 1882 Marx kept a journal of readings he was doing on the histories of a wide range of societies: Indonesia, India, Russia, Algeria, Australia, Latin America,  and Henry Morgan’s anthropological studies on the North American Iroquois peoples.

The notes on Morgan were found by Engels after Marx’s death and formed the background to Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. These anthropological notebooks show that Marx became very aware of the dynamics of these societies. He appreciated the manner in which their communal forms had resisted imperialism and any hint of respect for a civilising role of colonialism was replaced by an implacable condemnation.


All of this theorisation culminated in Marx’s writings on Russia in 1877-82, in which he emphatically denied that the argument of Capital could be taken as a prediction of Russia’s future. In fact, he said that if Russia could avoid absorption into capitalism then the Russian village could prove a locus for evolution into socialism. He was not arguing for autarky; he believed that such a Russian socialist state would have to link with revolutionary workers in the West for survival and development.

Anderson argues that Marx was aware of “the intersectionality of class with ethnicity, race and nationalism”.  But he was not a “philosopher of difference in the postmodernist sense, for the critique of a single overarching entity, capital, was at the centre of his entire intellectual enterprise”.

Anderson’s assemblage of long-lost documents shows that Marx was far from a “Romantic Orientalist”.  He was a consistent revolutionary, a proponent of human liberation, who was prepared to put his own ideas into the mortar and pestle and evolve new viewpoints as his understanding of the world widened.

Most importantly, he responded to all signs of the human desire for liberation and sought to foster all aspects of the struggle.

[Barry Healy is a Socialist Alliance activitst in Perth, Western Australia.]

BOOK REVIEW: Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins (2010)
Oct 28, ’10

Author John Garvey

Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins is a very good and very important book. I hope to do it at least partial justice. But the book needs to be read; reading a review will not suffice to appreciate or understand its depth and breadth. The book is finely written and Anderson goes to considerable lengths to provide readers with background information to be able to make sense of what might be otherwise obscure matters.

Anderson’s argument is based on a careful and comprehensive reading of the writings of Marx (and, to the extent necessary, Engels) on:

1. the history, economics and politics of societies and nations outside Western Europe (but including Ireland),
2. movements of national liberation, as in Ireland, Poland and India, and
3. the relationship between ‘race’ and class in countries such as England and the United States.

Anderson draws upon his extensive knowledge of the full body of Marx’s writings, including those that have still not been published in any language. (In an Appendix, he provides an especially illuminating account of the publishing history of Marx’s works, including the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), the just over twenty year old international effort to collect, edit and publish all of Marx’s writings in a manner undistorted by narrow political interests. The total number of planned volumes for MEGA is 114; just over fifty had been published as of the date of this book’s publication).

Anderson convincingly demonstrates that few of the commonplace observations about the limitations of Marx’s ideas when it comes to matters other than the exploitation of labor by capital or the accusations that Marx was guilty of Euro-centrism (as articulated by critics such as Edward Said) can withstand careful scrutiny. His core argument about the eventual subtlety, sophistication and universality of Marx’s work, involving numerous historical periods and political situations, is built upon a fairly straightforward claim—that Marx changed his mind over the course of almost forty years of committed intellectual and practical work. He acknowledges that, in their early writings (including The Communist Manifesto), Marx and Engels emphasized the ways in which capitalist development battered down all ancient customs that stood in the way of progress—while, at the same time, they denounced the pain and suffering that such development inflicted on all who came in its way. Furthermore, and worse, they subscribed too easily to the common prejudices of their time when it came to matters such as the nature of the Slavic, Indian and Jewish peoples.

While Anderson always provides contexts within which to judge what the two revolutionaries wrote (such as the profoundly reactionary character of the Russian state and its domination of the Slavic peoples), he makes no attempt to obscure matters. He includes the following examples:

* In 1849, writing about Eastern Europe, Engels said that, “except for the Germans, the Poles and the Magyars (Hungarians), ‘all the other large and small nationalities] are destined to perish before long in the revolutionary world storm. For that reason they are now counter-revolutionary’ (49). He went on to predict, ‘the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that too is a step forward’ (49). In the same article, Engels suggested that the Slavs had never really had a history of their own.
* On a number of occasions, Marx made especially derogatory comments about the Jews—in both published and unpublished documents. In the 1845 “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx criticized Feuerbach for having a notion of praxis that was ‘defined only in its dirty-Jewish [schmutzige-judischen] form of appearance’ (51). Anderson also comments that, while “On the Jewish Question” provides valuable insights, it is marred by “extremely problematic comments on Jews” (52).
* In 1853, in an article published in the New York Tribune, Marx suggested that India had been more or less frozen in time. The traditional village system had ‘transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature …’ (52).

At the conclusion of the Tribune article, Marx managed to do something that would attract the ire of Edward Said a hundred and twenty-five years later; he quoted Goethe—specifically, a stanza from West-Eastern Divan, a poem about Timur, who conquered Delhi in 1398. The stanza reads:

Should this torture then torment us

Since it brings us greater pleasure?

Were not through the rule of Timur

Souls devoured without measure?

Said seized upon Marx’s quoting of Goethe as proof positive that Marx shared all of the traditional condescending views of the Orient and that, ‘in article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution’ (17). Anderson methodically takes apart Said’s claim by pointing out that the literary critic had failed to notice the ways in which Marx had used the same Goethe stanza to sarcastically highlight the self-satisfaction of various ruling classes in the crimes they perpetuated against the European working classes—including an 1855 newspaper article on the economic crisis in England, his 1861-63 economic manuscripts, and in volume I of Capital (17-20). In addition, Anderson argues that Said simply had either not read or not understood Marx’s later writings on India (even as early as later that same summer of 1853) where he increasingly emphasized his disgust with British rule, his sympathies for Indian independence and his support for Indian revolts.

As Marx studied varied societies more intensively, he came to reconsider some of his earlier views on countries such as India, Russia and China. [1] Four aspects of his evolving views are especially important—

1. the survival of communal forms in late 19th Century societies (societies as varied as the Indian, the Russian and the Native American) suggested that it might not be necessary for all countries to be dragged through the squandering of human life that capitalist development required in order to arrive at a higher stage of social organization;[2]
2. there was no single path that the various countries of the world had been on prior to capitalist development—there were, of course, similarities but it was essential to appreciate the differences;
3. there is no single path that countries will follow even after their encounter with capitalist realities;
4. there is a complex, and reciprocal, relationship between the development of revolutionary possibilities in the advanced and “backward” countries.

Marx was increasingly interested in understanding the ways in which movements of opposition to colonialism might make a direct contribution to the renewal of revolutionary movements in the capitalist metropolises and the ways in which the workers’ movements might advance the cause of freedom from national oppression.

Anderson eventually concludes that, in spite of the continued survival of indigenous communal forms in Africa, Asia and Latin America today, these survivals can probably no longer represent an alternative way forward:

… none of these are on the scale of the scale of Russian or Indian communal forms during Marx’s day. Nonetheless, vestiges of these communal forms sometimes follow peasants into the cities and in any case, important anticapitalist movements have developed recently in places like Mexico and Bolivia, based upon these indigenous communal forms. On the whole, however, even these areas have been penetrated by capital to a far greater degree than was true of the Russian or Indian village of the 188os. Marx’s multilinear approach toward Russia, India, and other noncapitalist lands is more relevant today at a general theoretical or methodological level, however. (245)

At the heart of this methodology is an insistence on specific concrete analyses. In 1890, Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, wrote about his memories of Marx. He commented directly on his manner of thinking and working:

He saw not only the surface, but what lay beneath it. He examined all the constituent parts in their mutual action and reaction; he isolated each of these parts and traced the history of its development. Then he went o n from the thing to its surroundings and observed the reaction of one upon the other. He traced the origin of the object, the changes, evolutions and revolutions it went through, and proceeded finally to its remotest effects. He did not see a thing singly, in itself and for itself, separate from its surroundings; he saw a highly complicated world in continual motion (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue/1890/xx/marx.htm

Much of the writing Anderson examines was produced during the very years when Marx was formulating the most theoretically abstract elements of his critique of political economy (reflected in the Grundrisse and the three volumes of Capital), when he was also an active journalist (Anderson notes that Marx’s journalism accounts for five full volumes in the Collected Works, MECW) and when he was a leading political thinker/activist, on issues such as Polish rebellions against foreign domination and the American Civil War, within the emerging First International.[3]

Anderson provides what I thought were fascinating glimpses into Marx’s daily life; he was not the only agitator in the family. Perhaps my favorite passage in the entire book is the following account of the Marx family’s participation in a London demonstration on October 24, 1869 demanding amnesty for Irish prisoners, written by Marx’s daughter Jenny:

In London the event of the week has been a Fenian demonstration got up for the purpose of praying the government for the release of the Irish prisoners. As Tussy [Eleanor/another daughter] has returned from Ireland a stauncher Irishman than ever, she did not rest until she had persuaded Moor [Marx], Mama and me to go with her to Hyde Park, the place appointed for the meeting. This Park, the biggest one in London, was one mass of men, women and children, even the trees up to their highest branches had their inhabitants. The number of persons present were by the papers estimated at somewhere about 70 thousand, but as these papers are English, this figure is no doubt too low. There were processionists carrying red, green, and white banners with all sorts of devices, such as “Keep your powder dry!,” “Disobedience to tyrants is a duty to God!” And hoisted higher than the flags were a profusion of red Jacobin caps, the bearers of which sang the Marseillaise—sights and sounds that must have greatly interfered with the enjoyment of the portwine at the clubs. (134-135)

If, one day, some film maker finally gets around to making a biopic about Marx, I sure hope that he or she finds a way to picture Marx and the family amidst those demonstrators—maybe even capturing Marx’s unrecorded complaints about how bad the speakers were (even though he probably couldn’t hear them). It appears that Marx was glad that he had gone and that he had, characteristically, noticed something important. Two days later, he spoke to the General Council about the demonstration and said, “The main feature of the demonstration had been ignored, it was that at least part of the English working class had lost their prejudice against the Irish” (135).

Each dimension of Marx’s life and work penetrated the others. In November of 1864, Marx had written about the origins of the International:

In September the Parisian workers sent a delegation to the London workers to demonstrate support for Poland. On that occasion, an International Workers’ Committee was formed. The matter is not without importance because … in London the same people are at the head who organized the gigantic reception for [Italian revolutionary Giuseppe] Garibaldi and, by their monster meeting with [British Liberal leader John] Bright in St. James’s Hall, prevented war with the United States. (67)

The English working class had been forthright in opposing any English intervention on the side of the Confederacy in the US Civil War—even though the Northern blockade of shipping of cotton from the South was leading to a collapse in the English textile industry, thereby resulting in the losses of many jobs—a solidarity that Marx celebrated. Hard as it is to imagine these days, those English workers were prepared to support the cause of abolition even though such support resulted in their own immiseration. A far cry from the sad spectacle of the 1980s when American anti-apartheid organizers insisted that their efforts to disinvest from the South African economy would not adversely affect the pensions of American workers—indeed, they insisted that they would be opposed to any disinvestment that adversely affected those pensions. It was a long climb down from the heights of the 19th Century.

In his “Inaugural Address” to the International, Marx argued that the callous hypocrisy and complicity of the ruling classes in the suppression of the Chechens (yes, they were being oppressed by Russia then too) and the Poles and their all but open support for the Confederate States in the Civil War ‘have taught the working classes the duty to master themselves the mysteries of international politics. … The fight for such a foreign policy forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working classes’ (67).

At times, the International, under Marx’s clear influence, functioned as if it was the foreign affairs ministry of the global proletariat. In December of 1864, the General Council of the International wrote to Abraham Lincoln to congratulate him on his re-election. The address was delivered to Charles Francis Adams, the American minister to Britain. Anderson quotes the following extended excerpt:

We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant warcry of your re-election is, Death to Slavery. From the commencement of the Titanic-American strife the working men of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. … The working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warning, that the slave-holders’ rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor, and that for the men of labor, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic. Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed on them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastic ally the pro-slavery intervention, importunities of their betters—and, political power of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic; while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master; they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor or support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation, but this barrier has been swept off by the red sea of civil war. The working men of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Anti-Slavery War will do for the working classes. (110)

While the American minster declined to meet with a delegation from the International, he did transmit the letter to Lincoln. And Lincoln responded:

Nations do not exist for themselves alone, but to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind by benevolent intercourse and example. It is in this relation that the United States regard their cause in the present conflict with slave-maintaining insurgents as the cause of human nature, and they derive new encouragement to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies [emphasis added]. (111)

In the letter to Lincoln, Marx had highlighted the debasement of white American workers by their support for slavery and white supremacy and the key role that abolition would play in opening up the landscape for broader struggles. When it came to the relation of the English workers to Ireland and the Irish workers among them, he had the same approach:

I have become more and more convinced—and the thing now is to drum this conviction into the English working class—that they will never do anything decisive here in England before they separate their attitude towards Ireland quite definitely from that of the ruling classes, and not only make common cause with the Irish, but even take the initiative in dissolving the Union established in 1801, and substituting a free federal relationship for it. … Every movement in England itself is crippled by the dissension with the Irish, who form a very important section of the working class in England itself. Letter to Kugelmann, 1869. (145)

But approval and support did not require the abandonment of enlightenment. Two years earlier, Marx had been sharply critical of a bombing outside a London jail holding Irish prisoners. The bomb had exploded in the wrong place and killed a dozen residents in a nearby neighborhood. Marx immediately wrote to Engels:

The latest Fenian exploit in Clerkenwell is a great folly. The London masses, which have shown much sympathy for Ireland, will be enraged by it, and driven into the arms of the government party. One cannot expect the London proletarians to let themselves be blown up for the sake of Fenian emissaries. Secret, melodramatic conspiracies of this kind are, in general, more or less doomed to failure. (130)

Marx had indeed figured many things out and far too much of what he thought and wrote was never available soon enough to revolutionaries in the years since his death—whether we’re talking about the early philosophic manuscripts, the break-through notes of the Grundrisse, the multiple editions of Capital, or the ethnological notebooks of his last years. Much of what we had not seen is now recovered and Anderson has provided an indispensable re-introduction to the great revolutionary. There is much more to write about and think through but my hope is that this review provokes many to read the book and to become part of conversations about its relevance to pressing issues of this day, such as the form, content and meaning of political Islam (in all its various shades) and the continued inability of far too many leftists to understand that simple defiance of the United States (in the manner of Hugo Chavez or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) does not have anything to do with the establishment of an emancipated society anywhere.[4] Marx’s vision and his dreams were, over the course of his life, increasingly universal ones. They need to be brought to life once again.

1. [1] It is beyond the scope of this review to summarize Anderson’s accounts of Marx’s extensive studies, in the last years of his life, of places as varied as Russia, Indonesia, Algeria, and Latin America. What is worth mentioning is that Marx thought they were important enough that he neglected the editorial work on the revisions of Capital in their favor. ↩
2. [2] For a wonderful appreciation of Marx’s late understandings of Native American societies and their political implications, see Franklin Rosemont’s “Karl Marx and the Iroquois.” ↩
3. [3] A good selection of Marx’s newspaper writings is available in Dispatches from the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx, edited by James Ledbetter. New York. Penguin: 2007. ↩
4. [4] Recently, an especially deplorable scene took place in New York when representatives of various “progressive” or even “revolutionary” groups met with Ahmadinejad after his appearance at the UN to denounce American imperialism. It is of no use to suggest that those who attended should be ashamed of themselves—they have made it clear that they are no longer able to have such sentiments. For a celebration of the meeting, see U.S. progressives meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. ↩

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 11/15/2010 - 15:37


ISR Issue 73, September–October 2010

When Marx looked outside Europe

>Kevin B. Anderson
Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies
University of Chicago Press, 2010
336 pages • $ 22.50

Review by Nagesh Rao

The conclusion of Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins sums up the main lines of his argument: “Marx…created a multilinear and non-reductionist theory of history…analyzed the complexities and differences of non-Western societies, and…refused to bind himself to a single model of development or revolution.”

Those familiar with cultural and critical theory, particularly within postcolonial studies, will see right away that Anderson’s claim runs counter to many of the assumptions about Marxism prevalent in academia. Marxism, we are told, is a peculiarly nineteenth-century phenomenon; as such, not only are these ideas outdated, but they are internally inconsistent and contradictory, if not reactionary, since they are founded on deterministic and Eurocentric notions of historical change.

These charges are typically substantiated by recycling a handful of selectively chosen quotations from Marx’s early writings on India, where Marx asserts that British colonialism in India has both a destructive and regenerative role to play. Sparked by Edward Said’s infamous bracketing of Marx as merely a left-wing manifestation of nineteenth-century Orientalism, and buttressed by poststructuralist and postmodernist critiques of Marx’s allegedly “teleological” and “progressivist” notions of history, this version of Marx is handed down to successive generations of scholars as authoritative. On the basis of a handful of quotations, studied at several removes from their source material, Marxism continues to be shoved into the trash bin of history.

However, the claims that Marxism is Eurocentric, Orientalist, deterministic, and teleological have not gone unanswered; nor has there been a paucity of scholarship devoted to recuperating Marx from his critics. Even within postcolonial studies, where such dismissals of Marxism are legion, a vocal minority has periodically asserted itself in defense of Marx’s theoretical methods and insights. Leftist scholars like Sumit Sarkar, Irfan Habib, Aijaz Ahmad, Neil Lazarus, August Nimtz, and others have contributed usefully to this growing archive of critical material.

Marx at the Margins might not be the first to take on this task, but will doubtless be considered a touchstone of discussions on this subject, if not the definitive defense of Marxism, for years to come. In lucid, well-paced prose, Anderson patiently walks us through an incredible wealth of research, all of which leads fittingly to the conclusion with which this review began. Accessible to the novice, fascinating and eye-opening to the specialist, Anderson’s meticulous research offers up a Marxism whose internationalism (globalism, if you will) is no mere accidental afterthought. Marx and Engels emerge, in Anderson’s reading, not only as the most progressive thinkers of their time, but as the most prescient and relevant theorists for our age of ongoing global and planetary crises.

The brief against Marx

For several years after its publication in 1969, Shlomo Avineri’s tendentious selection of Marx and Engels’s writings on colonialism set the tone for discussions about Marxism’s attitude toward European colonialism, the culture and political economy of the colonies themselves, and toward questions of nationalism and national liberation. But it was the renowned scholar Edward Said’s critique of Marx in his pathbreaking book, Orientalism, that almost singlehandedly made commonplace the notion that Marxism was (is) hopelessly Eurocentric.

Said’s argument, as is now well known, rested on a few decontextualized quotations, particularly from Marx’s early article “The British Rule in India.” Written in 1853, this was, writes Anderson, “Marx’s first substantial publication on a non-Western society.” While lambasting British colonialism for inflicting an “infinitely more intensive kind” of misery on the people of India than they had ever “had to suffer before,” it is in this article that Marx begins to outline a concept of “Oriental despotism,” which he used to describe the political economy of non–Western European societies.

This notion of “Oriental despotism,” coupled with the related notion of an “Asiatic mode of production” seems to present the East as the West’s “Other”; an Other, moreover, that is forever locked in a static, stagnant, and backward position relative to the West, and that will simply be swept along by the forces of European “progress,” with all its attendant contradictions. For Said, this Eurocentric view of history is not an accident in Marx; rather, it is of a piece with the Orientalist tradition of scholarship that Marx was drawing on.

After all, it was none other than Hegel who infamously viewed India as a nation that “has remained stationary and fixed” through history, whose people “lack self-consciousness,” rendering them “incapable of writing history.” Thus Indians (and Africans) were for Hegel peoples who not only had no history, but were fated to be “subjected to Europeans.”

As Anderson notes, according to Said, for all of Marx’s “humanity” and “his sympathy for the misery of the people…in the end, it is the romantic Orientalist vision that wins out.” In this vision, British colonialism, while destructive in the first instance, would in the final analysis play a regenerative role in India. It is this view of Marxism that has become hegemonic in academic circles, particularly in those fields that were most impacted by Said’s influential book.

The actual archive

Anderson, following the lead of Ahmad, Jani, Nimtz, and others argues that this view of Marx is a spurious one. Marx at the Margins shows us that this attenuated version of Marx can only be sustained by ignoring the actual archive of Marx and Engels’s writings on non-Western societies, which is much more extensive than has been acknowledged by his critics. Anderson tells us, for instance, that in 1853 alone, as Marx embarked on his first round of research on India and Indonesia, he produced notes, “none of which have been published in any form, [which] would comprise around a hundred printed pages” (emphasis added).

And this was only the beginning. As Anderson shows, by the 1860s and 1870s, Marx was reading voraciously and writing extensively on the subject of British rule in India, teaching himself Russian so as to study the anthropologist Maxim Kovalevsky’s writings on communal landownership in India; and producing voluminous notes (16,000 words in length, writes Anderson) on John Budd Phear’s The Aryan Village in India and Ceylon.

Anderson’s reading of this vast archive shows us first of all that non-Western societies came to play an increasingly central role in Marx and Engels’s reckoning of the dialectic of capitalist expansion and the struggle for working-class self-emancipation. As a consequence, they constantly revised their earlier views of these regions of the world as new events unfolded, and as new research became available. Anderson cites, for instance, Pranav Jani’s argument that there is a discernible shift in Marx’s writings on India starting in 1857, when the first major revolt against British rule erupted in the region. Anderson rightly argues that “the absence of a nontraditionalist and progressive nationalist movement in India” prior to 1857 meant that Marx was left with few viable political alternatives to offer in 1853. He thus saw colonial emancipation in India as predicated on the overthrow of capitalism in Britain; the prospect of successful anticolonial revolutions had not yet entered into the picture.

Nevertheless, Marx anticipated in 1853 the post-1857 rescinding of the East India Company’s charter and the establishment of Crown rule, relating this to the “rising dominance of the manufacturing class at home.” Even in 1853, Marx had begun to point to “the possibility of an Indian national liberation movement,” writes Anderson.

By 1853, Marx has begun to overcome the one-sidedness of the treatment of non-Western societies in the [Communist] Manifesto. Although Chinese (and Indian) walls continue to be battered down by what Marx still evidently considered to be the progressive effects of world trade and even colonial conquest, people from within non-Western societies are now credited with the potential of “throwing off the English yoke altogether” and self-starting the “regeneration” of their societies and cultures. This regeneration would…retain the achievement of capitalist modernity.
In the wake of the 1857 Revolt, Marx begins to write of India as “our best ally,” and his writings become increasingly tilted toward exposing British atrocities rather than lamenting Indians’ supposed torpor and stagnation. In response to reports of atrocities against the British committed by the Indian sepoys (soldiers), Marx, rather than labeling them as just so much Indian barbarism, instead relates them to the long history of similar atrocities carried out by Europeans, from Caesar to Napoleon and later. Moreover, in the form of the Sepoy Uprising, as Anderson writes,
Marx was finding in colonial India something similar to capitalism’s forging of the working class. Thus, the very progress of colonialism was producing its gravediggers. Such a dialectical turn had been missing with respect to Asia in the Manifesto and in much of the 1853 writings on India.
A dynamic method

In similar fashion, Anderson analyzes Marx and Engels’s writings on Poland and Russia, on American slavery and the Civil War, Ireland and Algeria, illustrating again the dynamism of their method, and the sensitivity and nuance with which they analyzed non-Western societies. He thus traces the evolution from Engels’s infamous early characterization of the Slavs (and others) as “non-historic peoples” to Marx’s writings in the 1880s, where he “was considering the possibility that a communist revolution in Russia could serve as the starting point for a wider European socialist transformation.” As theorists who sought to transform social relations the world over, Marx and Engels developed an increasingly sympathetic view of national liberation struggles, giving anticolonialism and antiracism a centrality in their revolutionary perspectives that their detractors would have us ignore.
Marx at the Margins is a valuable contribution to the ongoing challenge of recuperating Marxism from its many academic distortions. Although Anderson sometimes refrains from drawing the robust conclusions that his analyses point to, preferring instead to let the evidence speak for itself, Marx at the Margins is essential reading for anyone seeking to explore the sophistication and complexity of Marx and Engels’s writings on race, nationalism, ethnicity, and the historical development of non-Western societies.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 04/15/2011 - 15:31



Chris Nineham reviews Marx at the Margins, which reveals Marx and Engels as pioneers in the struggle against colonialism and racism.

Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (University of Chicago Press 2010), xi, 319pp.
Marx at the Margins very successfully defends Marx and Engels against claims that their analysis of capitalism was economistic and Eurocentric. The charge that the founders of Marxism downplayed politics and reduced history to economic issues is common. It normally comes from the right wing, but has been taken up over the years by various figures on the left, including notably Edward Said. Said argued that Marx ignored the importance of colonialism, race and identity in the making of the modern world.

The connected accusation of Eurocentrism is partly based on a few instances of questionable language used by Marx and Engels. It is sustained however by the argument that Marx saw development through the prism of Western experience, that he predicted the rest of the world would pass through the same stages of development as Europe in what Anderson calls a ‘unilinear’ way. Anderson does not just deal convincingly with these charges, he establishes that the truth is the very opposite. He shows that Marx was a pioneer of anti-imperialism, and a champion of political causes that many on the left ignored. Both their writings and the political record show that Marx and Engels believed the struggle for democracy and national liberation were crucial components in the struggle for human emancipation.

The case for Marx’s Eurocentrism rests partly on a reading of the Communist Manifesto. The first part of the manifesto famously describes some of the achievements of capitalism; the way it overcomes isolation, brings technological advance and generates an historically unparalleled surplus. In a condescending phrase Marx argues capitalism draws ‘even the most barbarian nations in to civilisation’ (p.9). Occasional slips like this show Marx did not always find the language to distance himself from the prejudices that surrounded him, but they tell us nothing of much use about his politics.

The Manifesto has a two-sided take on capitalism. As Anderson notes Marx leaves all his criticisms of capitalism to the second half of the book. It would be absurd to see the Manifesto, calling as it does for the system’s overthrow, as an apology for any aspect of that system. If there is a weakness it is one of omission: Marx does not describe the specific degradations of colonialism.

The second source of criticism is Marx’s early 1850s writing on India. Edward Said has particularly taken Marx to task for his apparent softness on the civilising tendencies of British colonialism in Marx’s essay The British Rule in India. Others like Aijaz Ahmed, however, have criticised Said’s ‘postmodern kind of anti-colonialism’ (p.22), and argued that it ignored the need to challenge caste oppression, something that Marx and other progressive Indians supported. As Marx became more engaged with the question of development, his position quickly became more dialectical. In 1853, the same year he wrote The British Rule in India, Marx wrote in another essay the following:

The Indians will not reap the benefits of the new elements of society scattered amongst 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 Hindoos themselves have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether (The Future Results of British Rule in India, cited p.23).

As Irfan Habib argues, these lines show Marx not just setting the emancipation of colonial peoples as an objective for British workers, remarkable enough for the time, but also suggests he thought Indian national liberation might come before the emancipation of the European working classes. ‘Such insight and vision’ argues Habib, ‘could come from Marx and Marx alone’ (p.23).

Marx’s subsequent writing on India shows a growing indignation at the horrors of colonialism but also a sense of the interdependence of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles elsewhere. In 1858, after the great Sepoy Rebellion that shook the colonial administration, Marx wrote in a remarkable letter to letter to Engels in the same year, that ‘India is now our best ally’ (p.41). Anderson documents in great detail the fact that Marx and Engels energetically supported the struggles of oppressed people all around the world. Such support was not just an add-on to an essentially class or economics-based worldview. The liberation of the Polish people and other oppressed nationalities in Russia, for example, was a central part of Marx’s strategic thinking. He saw their defeat in 1864 as a historic blow: ‘The suppression of the Polish insurrection and the annexation of the Caucasus, I regard as the two most important events to have taken place in Europe since 1815’ (p.66).

Similarly, Marx was a fervent supporter of the struggle against slavery in the US and elsewhere, and was particularly excited by resistance amongst slaves themselves. In another letter to Engels he wrote: ‘In my view, the most momentous thing happening in the world today is, on the one hand, the movement among the slaves in America, started by the death of Brown, and the movement among the slaves in Russia’ (p.85). It was actually under the impact of the American Civil War, the movement in Europe in support of abolition, and the Polish insurrection that the First International was created. In the International’s inaugural address Marx makes the point that it was protests against intervention by the working classes of England that stopped ‘the West of Europe from plunging headlong in to an infamous crusade for the perpetuation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic’ (p.108).

The charge that Marx imposed Western development models turns out to be a travesty as well. Examining in detail some of Marx’s neglected journalism and notebooks, Anderson shows that Marx spent a huge amount of time and energy studying the specifics of social relations and the particular prospects for development in India and Russia and North Africa. Marx actually suggested the possibility of unique developmental paths from communal agricultural forms to socialism in Russia (in tandem with the struggles of the European working class). He polemicised against other writers who believed feudal relations dominated in Asia. Marx argued for the existence of a different formation, an ‘Asiatic mode’ with no analogue in Western history.

There has been a lot of criticism of this notion, but Anderson explains that Marx’s view of the Asiatic mode and communal relations in India were complex and changing. While in his early essays for example he judged communal forms in the Indian village as the basis for ‘Oriental Despotism’, by the time he wrote the Grundrisse in 1857 he viewed them more sympathetically as a counterpoint to the disempowered and atomized state of the modern working class. Later, he suggested the destruction of communal relations could become a flashpoint of resistance to encroaching capitalism.

Marx’s support for national self-determination and his hopes for path-breaking leaps in the underdeveloped world were not accidental. They flowed from his hostility to capitalism as a whole. His tireless campaigning against the British occupation of Ireland, for example, was linked to the struggle for class unity in Britain. He argued the task of the General Council of the International in London was to ‘awaken the consciousness of the English working-class to the notion that, for them, the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice of humanitarian sentiment, but the first condition of their own social emancipation’ (p.150). It was precisely because he was a revolutionary dedicated to the root and branch overthrow of the system that he welcomed and supported any movement that challenged the power of its main protagonists.

Exactly the opposite of the caricature then, is true. Far from leading him to productivism or a mechanical theory of predetermined stages, Marx’s analysis led him to a deep understanding of the contradictions and destabilising unevenness of capitalist development, and to welcome every rebellion more consistently and enthusiastically than any other western contemporary. Marx and Engels fought battles in the movement at the time for this kind of political, global approach, against those like Proudhon who wanted to reduce the movement to the spontaneous class struggle.

In his inaugural address to the International, Marx argued that the struggle against slavery, the Polish insurrection and the Russian occupation of the Caucasus have ‘taught the working classes the duty to master themselves the mysteries of international politics… the fight for such a foreign policy forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working classes’ (p.67).

Andersons’ book is important not just as a refutation of views hostile to Marx on the right and left. His understanding of Marxism helps us counter economism on the Marxist left itself, and to chart our way forward in a complex global situation. To this day there is a tendency to downplay the importance of struggles against imperialism and struggles for democracy, and to focus on a narrowly defined class struggle. Our world is shaped by democratic revolution and imperialist war. Just as in Marx’s day, for instance, racism and division at home are linked to overseas occupation. Our movement needs a ‘foreign policy’ as part of our own struggle for emancipation.