Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 10, 2006

Did Karl Marx endorse imperialism?

Filed under: imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 3:37 pm


Colonel Blimp

There’s an article today on the Guardian newspaper’s “Comment is free” blog by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, a Thatcherite journalist who has remained somewhat critical of the war in Iraq but not the right of great powers to dominate weaker ones, as demonstrated by article’s title: “They should come out as imperialist and proud of it.” Wheatcroft is referring to a certain diffidence on the part of the Euston Manifesto’s drafters to proclaim their incipient imperialist yearnings. Of course, there is also the possibility that Wheatcroft is employing Swiftian irony, but since he was called upon by the NY Times Book Review to pen a hatchet job on Robert Fisk’s “The Conquest of the Middle East,” that seems a bit remote.

Since Wheatcroft’s article portrays Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as defenders of imperialism, a reply might be in order. As is commonly understood, there is a long-standing tradition on the British left to try to make an amalgam between socialism and the foreign policy imperatives of the British Empire. Indeed, two different and very useful blog contributions have connected the Euston Manifesto to this tradition.

From Histomat, a group blog based in Great Britain, there’s an entry titled “Euston, we have a problem” that examines the Coefficient Club of the Fabian Society as a precedent to Norm Geras and company’s project: “Basically, the Fabians wanted a new world imperial order spreading out from a militarised and newly efficient British state that would spread universal suffrage internationally. While the bit about ‘universal suffrage’ was not accepted by the non-socialist members of the Coefficients Club, these conservative and liberals who attended saluted the idea of remilitarising British society as they felt British parliamentarism had gone soft.”

From Reading the Maps, another excellent group blog based in New Zealand, there’s a complementary article titled “The Peculiarities of the Pro-war Left” that complements Histomat’s:

“To many intellectuals in nineteenth century Britain, the first section of the Manifesto read less like history than prophecy. The first British Marxist organisation of any size and durability, the Social Democratic Federation, was led by a man who can rightly be called a forebear of today’s pro-war left. Described by Eric Hobsbawm as a ‘gentleman, cricketer, and stockbroker leading the masses toward revolution in a top hat and frock-coat’, Henry Hyndman worried the working class rank and file of the SDF by using the Communist Manifesto to make pseudo-Marxist defences of the British Empire, arguing that Britain’s colonies were the ‘just desserts’ of the British working class. Hyndman’s views found an echo amongst the so-called socialist imperialists of the early Fabian Society.”

It should be understood that these Fabians were capable of quoting Marx as well as the devil cites scripture. Although Wheatcroft is a Thatcherite with zero sympathies for socialism, he seems to have absorbed much of the mischievousness of people like Hyndman.

He writes:

In the next century Mill, Macaulay and even Marx made approving noises about British rule in India. Macaulay thought it proper to elevate the Indians by teaching them Shakespeare and the doctrines of the Glorious Revolution. Early on, Marx believed “the English were the first conquerors superior, and therefore inaccessible, to Hindu civilisation”; for much the same reason Engels approved initially of France’s conquest of Algeria.

While it is true that Marx and Engels held such attitudes early in their career, it is important to understand that they eventually discarded them. Marx wrote his articles on India in the early 1850s, but even if he gave critical support to Great Britain, there was no mistaking his analysis for those of the Fabians or Norm Geras. Even at this early date, Marx believed that “The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among 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 shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.”

(The Future Results of British Rule in India, July 22, 1853)

Furthermore, even if Marx offered the barest concession to British capitalism as a force that could create the conditions for the future emancipation of India, there were clear indications that by the end of his life, he no longer held such beliefs. In his correspondence with the Russian populists, he characterized English rule in India as a “bleeding process with a vengeance” and advised the populists to reject the idea that a capitalist stage was necessary precondition for Russia to make the socialist revolution.

Continuing along in his bumbling manner, Wheatcroft opines:

According to Marxist doctrine, socialism could arrive only after bourgeois capitalism. A comparable outlook was found on the left well beyond the Marxists. Europeans instinctively believed that Europe “had achieved the highest form of civilisation ever known”, which was its duty to export throughout the world, AJP Taylor wrote. He added, only part playfully, that “these were radical beliefs”: that was why the Fabians supported the Boer war and championed the British empire.

Contrary to Wheatcroft, Marxists came to understand that the main obstacle to the historic goals of the bourgeois revolution in places such as India, Algeria and elsewhere was colonial rule itself. For example, one of the cornerstones of a modern capitalist society is a land reform that will hasten the development of commodity production in the countryside, a precondition for future capitalist growth. However, the colonists preferred to utilize the plantation system and forced labor as a way to guarantee a steady supply of cheap agricultural goods and superprofits. It would take socialist and anti-imperialist struggles to uproot the plantation system, not the beneficence of the mother country which fought such changes till the very end.


  1. Just because Marx later hoped that industrial development could proceed on a non-capitalist basis, it doesn’t mean he gave up crediting imperialism with an objectively progressive role in India. “A bleeding process with a vengeance” isn’t very different from how he characterized imperialism’s cruel side in his 1852-3 articles. I don’t see how this disproves that Marx and Engels supported imperialism in much the same way as they supported free trade against protectionism or more generally, the bourgeoisie against the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry. This has always been an interesting thing for me, actually, which I’ve never had time to fully pursue. In short, it seems a little like much of the Marxist characterization of imperialism, and unequivocal opposition to it, is straight out of Lenin, or Luxemburg (she was clear that imperialism had once had a progressive role, but by 1914 it was no longer worth supporting because it had trained its sights on Europe itself, and aimed to physically destroy the old bourgeois order and the proletariat itself–I think this is all from the end of the Junius Pamphlet). If that view of the world–World War One era imperialism as capitalism’s “highest stage”–is at least somewhat flawed, what happens to the critique of imperialism? How have later Marxists created a coherent critique of imperialism while acknowledging the mistakes or holes in Lenin’s model, given all that has changed in the last century? I know some names, some vague ideas (Sweezy and Magdoff, people around New Left Review–this is mostly from the sixties and seventies, which means it has its own major problems). But this is a big hole in my own knowledge, and in how I approach the current round of imperialism, which can no longer be said to have any progressive role since capitalism (or at least industry) obviously exists and has existed for decades, in some perverse form, in Iraq. What would be worth looking at?

    Comment by Poulod — May 10, 2006 @ 4:43 pm

  2. I would strongly recommend Robert Biel’s “The New Imperialism: Crisis and Contradictions in North/South Relations” that I reviewed here:


    Comment by louisproyect — May 10, 2006 @ 5:19 pm

  3. Marx’s views on British imperialism in India did undergo an important development in the course of the 1850s, but at no point did they have anything in common with the position of imperialism’s cheerleaders, whether in his day or our own. In one article he wrote that “England was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them,” although it might have been “the unconscious tool of history in bringing about [a] revolution” in Indian society.

    Throughout the 1850s, Marx repeatedly and explicitly condemned the brutal impact of colonialism. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”

    And he wrote that only when capitalism has been overthrown, “will human progress cease to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.” In the same article, he commented, “The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British people, until in Great Britain itself the now-ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.”

    That final remark represents the development in Marx’s views. At the start of this period he seems to have assumed that progress in India would first require a socialist revolution in Britain. Later he realized that a successful anti-imperialist struggle in India might precede–and be the precondition for–a successful uprising by the British working class.

    Thus, when mutinies and uprisings took place across northern India in 1857, Marx defended the rebellions, showing how it was a response to the barbarism of British colonial policy. Because the revolt drained Britain’s military and financial resources, weakening the power of British capitalists, Marx declared that “India is now our best ally”–even though conditions were not yet ready for the rebellion to succeed.

    And Marx soon generalized this view, arguing, for instance, that it was in the interests of British workers to support the struggle for Irish independence.

    So much for Marx’s alleged endorsement of imperialism.

    Comment by Phil Gasper — May 11, 2006 @ 1:27 am

  4. The one overseas , tourist trip that Marx took late in his life was to Northern Africa.

    Comment by Charles Brown — May 11, 2006 @ 1:34 pm

  5. Lou,

    Marx does not seem so sanguine about bloody bourgeois colonialism in the following quoted passage from _Capital_ vol.I (Part VIII: Primitive Accumulation CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE:GENESIS OF THE INDUSTRIAL CAPITALIST) ; This section mentions India specifically:


    The English East India Company, as is well known, obtained, besides the political rule in India, the exclusive monopoly of the tea-trade, as well as of the Chinese trade in general, and of the transport of goods to and from Europe. But the coasting trade of India and between the islands, as well as the internal trade of India, were the monopoly of the higher employés of the company. The monopolies of salt, opium, betel and other commodities, were inexhaustible mines of wealth. The employés themselves fixed the price and plundered at will the unhappy Hindus. The Governor-General took part in this private traffic. His favourites received contracts under conditions whereby they, cleverer than the alchemists, made gold out of nothing. Great fortunes sprang up like mushrooms in a day; primitive accumulation went on without the advance of a shilling. The trial of Warren Hastings swarms with such cases. Here is an instance. A contract for opium was given to a certain Sullivan at the moment of his departure on an official mission to a part of India far removed from the opium district. Sullivan sold his contract to one Binn for £40,000; Binn sold it the same day for £60,000, and the ultimate purchaser who carried out the contract declared that after all he realised an enormous gain. According to one of the lists laid before Parliament, the Company and its employés from 1757-1766 got £6,000,000 from the Indians as gifts. Between 1769 and 1770, the English manufactured a famine by buying up all the rice and refusing to sell it again, except at fabulous prices. [6]

    The treatment of the aborigines was, naturally, most frightful in plantation-colonies destined for export trade only, such as the West Indies, and in rich and well-populated countries, such as Mexico and India, that were given over to plunder. But even in the colonies properly so called, the Christian character of primitive accumulation did not belie itself. Those sober virtuosi of Protestantism, the Puritans of New England, in 1703, by decrees of their assembly set a premium of £40 on every Indian scalp and every captured red-skin: in 1720 a premium of £100 on every scalp; in 1744, after Massachusetts-Bay had proclaimed a certain tribe as rebels, the following prices: for a male scalp of 12 years and upwards £100 (new currency), for a male prisoner £105, for women and children prisoners £50, for scalps of women and children £50. Some decades later, the colonial system took its revenge on the descendants of the pious pilgrim fathers, who had grown seditious in the meantime. At English instigation and for English pay they were tomahawked by red-skins. The British Parliament proclaimed bloodhounds and scalping as “means that God and Nature had given into its hand.”

    The colonial system ripened, like a hot-house, trade and navigation. The “societies Monopolia” of Luther were powerful levers for concentration of capital. The colonies secured a market for the budding manufactures, and, through the monopoly of the market, an increased accumulation. The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital. Holland, which first fully developed the colonial system, in 1648 stood already in the acme of its commercial greatness. It was “in almost exclusive possession of the East Indian trade and the commerce between the south-east and north-west of Europe. Its fisheries, marine, manufactures, surpassed those of any other country. The total capital of the Republic was probably more important than that of all the rest of Europe put together.” Gülich forgets to add that by 1648, the people of Holland were more over-worked, poorer and more brutally oppressed than those of all the rest of Europe put together.

    To-day industrial supremacy implies commercial supremacy. In the period of manufacture properly so called, it is, on the other hand, the commercial supremacy that gives industrial predominance. Hence the preponderant rôle that the colonial system plays at that time. It was “the strange God” who perched himself on the altar cheek by jowl with the old Gods of Europe, and one fine day with a shove and a kick chucked them all of a heap. It proclaimed surplus-value making as the sole end and aim of humanity.

    Of course, there’s also this famous passage which sangfroidly raises the horrible paradox of “Force as the Midwife”. It too mentions East India specifically:


    “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

    The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power. ”



    Comment by Charles Brown — May 11, 2006 @ 2:21 pm

  6. […] Did Karl Marx endorse imperialism? « Louis Proyect: The … 10 May 2006 … Marx’s views on British imperialism in India did undergo an important … as well as the internal trade of India, were the monopoly of the …louisproyect.wordpress.com/2006/05/10/did-karl-marx-endorse-imperialism/ – 51k – Cached – Similar pages […]

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  7. […] Of Chicago Press. Proyect, Louis. 2006. Did Karl Marx endorse imperialism? (10.5.2006.) https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2006/05/10/did-karl-marx-endorse-imperialism/ Salo, Miika. 2009. Lenin kolmen pisteen kehällä. Sosialismi.net 22.9.2009. Saatavilla […]

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  8. […] (support for Britain and support for invasion of Iraq), Christopher Hitchens (invasion of Iraq). Did Karl Marx endorse imperialism? Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

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  9. Marxism IS Imperialism. Anyone who would attempt to refute this idea has neither read the “Ten Pillars of Communism”, nor have they paid any attention to the fact that Marxism was the single most imperialitic and totalitarian political movement of the last 160 years.

    Comment by Marxist Hypocrisy 101 — February 10, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

  10. […] Louis. 2006. Did Karl Marx endorse imperialism? (10.5.2006.) (Haettu […]

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