Was Karl Marx `Eurocentric'?

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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?

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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.]

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.