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Asiatic Mode of Production
by Louis Proyect
13 March 2002 23:38 UTC
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Aijaz Ahmad's "In Theory: Classes, Nations and Literatures" contains 
an article titled "Marx on India: a Clarification," which serves as a 
reply to Edward Said, who viewed Marx's early India articles as 
Orientalist. Ahmad's main goal is to show the context in which Marx's 
incidental journalistic pieces on India appear. This is totally 
missing in Said's treatment of the subject. Said quotes the famous 
paragraph from an June 10, 1853 Herald Tribune piece that described 
Indian village life as superstition-ridden and stagnant. The model 
that Marx had in mind when writing this article was North America. 
Marx was entertaining the possibility of capitalist economic 
development within a colonial setting around this time. (Ahmad 
reminds us that the gap in material prosperity between India and 
England in 1835 was far narrower than it was in 1947.)

Part of the problem was that Marx simply lacked sufficient 
information about India to develop a real theory. His remarks have 
the character of conjecture, not the sort of deeply elaborated 
dialectical thought that is found in Capital. And so what happens is 
that enemies of Marxism seize upon these underdeveloped remarks to 
indict Marxism itself. 

Ahmad notes that Marx had exhibited very little interest in India 
prior to 1853, when the first of the Herald Tribune articles were 
written. It was the presentation of the East India Company's 
application for charter renewal to Parliament that gave him the idea 
of writing about India at all. To prepare for the articles, he read 
the Parliamentary records and Bernier's "Travels". (Bernier was a 
17th century writer and medicine man.) So it is fair to say that 
Marx's views on India were shaped by the overall prejudice prevailing 
in India at the time. More to the point is that Marx had not even 
drafted the Grundrisse at this point and Capital was years away. So 
critics of Marx's writings on India are singling out works that are 
not even reflective of the fully developed critic of capitalism. 

Despite this, Marx was sufficiently aware of the nature of dual 
nature of the capitalist system to entertain the possibility that 
rapid capitalist development in India could eliminate backward 
economic relations and lead to future emancipation. His enthusiasm 
for English colonialism is related to his understanding of the need 
for capitalist transformation of all precapitalist social formations. 
His animosity towards feudal social relations is well known. He 
regards them as antiquated and a block on future progress. The means 
by which they are abolished are universally cruel and inhumane such 
as the Enclosure Acts. What he is looking for in this process is not 
a way of judging human agencies on a moral basis, but what the 
dynamics of this process can lead to. That goal is socialism and the 
sole measure of every preceding historical development. 

A few weeks later, on July 22nd, Marx wrote another article that had 
some more rude things to say about India and England as well. But 
here he was much more specific about the goal in question. He says 
that the English colonists will not emancipate the Indian masses. 
That is up to them to do. Specifically, Marx writes, "The Indian will 
not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among 
them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the new 
ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial 
proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong 
enough to throw off the English yoke altogether." 

So unless there is social revolution, the English presence in India 
brings no particular advantage. More to the point, it will bring 
tremendous suffering. 

Furthermore, there is evidence that Marx was becoming much more 
sensitive to the imperialist system itself late in life. He wrote a 
letter to Danielson in 1881 that basically described the sort of 
pillage that the socialists of Lenin's generation were sensitive to: 

"In India serious complications, if not a general outbreak, are in 
store for the British government. What the British take from them 
annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless for the 
Hindoos, pensions for the military and civil servicemen, for 
Afghanistan and other wars, etc. etc., -- what they take from them 
without any equivalent and quite apart from what they appropriate to 
themselves annually within India, -- speaking only of the commodities 
that Indians have to gratuitously and annually send over to England 
-- it amounts to more than the total sum of the income of the 60 
million of agricultural and industrial laborers of India. This is a 
bleeding process with a vengeance." 

A bleeding process with a vengeance? Make no mistake about this. Marx 
did not view England as on a civilizing mission.

Having said all this, there is something else that concerns me. All 
week long I have been in a fairly brutal debate (what else would you 
expect) with Harry Cleaver on whether Cuba is capitalist or not. 
Frankly, I am a little concerned that the world systems perspective 
in general, and A.G. Frank's concept of capitalism in permanence, 
tends to a kind of pessimism about the possibility of revolutions 
against capitalism. If this capitalist system is so all-powerful, 
what use is it to pick up a gun and challenge it?

>From A.G. Frank you get a kind of philosophical stance, reminiscent 
of Vico in many ways, in which the East might rise after a long wave 
of Western domination. Frankly, I am not willing to stand by in a 
detached Olympian stance while China emerges as a new world empire. 
I'd rather find a way to connect with Chinese revolutionaries to 
throw a monkey wrench in the system.

Harry Cleaver tells me that socialism was impossible in Cuba because 
commodity production was impossible to overcome. This stance amounts 
to a kind of U. of Texas autonomist sectarian TINA.

Some of the recent discussion about armchairs seems relevant here. If 
we are not willing to challenge the capitalist system and have 
confidence that working people can seize control of society and make 
production obey their own class interests, which expresses the needs 
of humanity in general, then we'd probably be better off stop 
pretending that we are enemies of the capitalist system.

Louis Proyect, lnp3@panix.com on 03/13/2002

Marxism list: http://www.marxmail.org

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